A 6-Minute Guide to Storytelling with Data: The “How We Got Here” Method

Can you tell stories with data like you can with words? Absolutely! In the video above, I’ll show you one of my two favorite methods for doing that. Have a look, and then try it out yourself. If you’d rather read, see below. But the video is a lot more fun!

(If you have trouble with the video, here’s a link to a high-resolution version on Youtube: https://youtu.be/g-rCSinAZf0. Video animation by innk.io)

So, what do I mean by telling stories with data? I don’t mean just making better charts and graphs or fancier presentation slides. I mean by actually applying the same techniques you would use when crafting a story with words – things like a story structure, conflict, resolution, emotion, and surprises. A real story told with data doesn’t need fancy charts and graphs. In fact, you might deliver it with nothing more than a whiteboard and a marker.

Let me give you an example. . .

In June of 2000, Andrew Moorfield started an online bank to help make loans to small businesses. He said, “It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.” But as with a lot companies at start-up, there were times when there wasn’t enough cash to pay the bills. In fact, he told me, “The first time I couldn’t make payroll was the worst! Having to choose who got paid and who didn’t was emotionally draining.”

But the way he handled it was a masterpiece of storytelling with data. And he did it with only five numbers on a whiteboard.

Here’s what he did. He pulled all 25 employees into a conference room. Then he wrote a number at the top of the whiteboard and said, “That was our bank account balance at the beginning of the month.” Below that he wrote two other numbers, and explained, “Those are the revenues we expect to get this month and the expenses we have to pay to keep running the business.”

Source: Chapter 22 of Sell with a Story

Then he drew a line and added them all up. He wrote the answer underneath, and said, “That’s what we’ll have left at the end of the month to pay your salaries,” and he circled that number.

Just to the right of it, he wrote another number and circled it. Then he said, “That’s how much your monthly salaries add up to.” And then he paused and let the audience assess the stark dilemma in front of them. You see, the number on the right was three times the size of the number on the left.

Then he did something else rather unusual. He asked the employees—all 25 of them—what they thought he should do about it. Now, he assumed, of course, the fairest thing to do would be to pay everyone a third of their salary. But the team surprised him with a different suggestion. They thought a better method would be to pay a third of the employees all of their salary, and the other two-thirds none.

Andrew was horrified. I mean, how could he possibly choose who to pay and who not to pay? But they surprised him a second time when they offered to help there as well. They told him that they would decide among themselves. And their criteria would be based solely on who needed the money most urgently and who could wait a month or two to catch up.

So, Andrew left the room so they could talk in private. When they called him back in, Andrew got his third surprise of the day. The people on the list to get paid were not the ones he expected. He thought the younger employees with the smaller salaries would be in the most desperate position. But among themselves, they’d decided that the older ones—the ones with families to feed and mortgages to pay—had the most immediate commitments. Several of the younger ones still lived at home with their parents, or in an inexpensive apartment, and had no family to support. They were the ones who volunteered to go without.

Andrew learned an important lesson from that experience that he’s used to this day.

When faced with a difficult decision that’ll result in people being disappointed, do two things:

  1. Be real, open, and honest with them about the situation. Lay all the facts out in plain view. And,
  2. Ask the people affected how they would decide if it was up to them. Nine times out of ten they’ll come to the same conclusion you did. And at that point, it’s far easier for them to accept your decision, because they recommended it! And occasionally, as in Andrew’s case, they might even suggest a better solution that you wouldn’t have even thought of.

Now, Andrew’s start-up eventually succeeded, and everybody got caught up on their pay. But if anyone ever told a story with data, it was Andrew Moorfield on that day. So, let’s have a quick look at the storytelling techniques Andrew used:

  • First, notice how instead of just giving them the answer, he walked the audience through each number, from the bank account balance at the beginning of the month, to the revenues and expenses during the month, to the balance at the end of the month. Didn’t that feel like the beginning, middle, and end of a story, with the context at the beginning, some challenge and conflict in the middle, and a result at the end?
  • Second, notice the emotional impact of the dramatic pause he took as he let his audience assess their dire situation.
  • Third, notice the element of surprise when he revealed that the bigger circled number on the right was payroll.
  • Fourth, notice that he used the literary device of showing, not telling. He showed them the cash flow and let them figure out there was a problem, instead of simply telling them there was a problem. That’s just like in a regular story how the audience gets to interpret the events in the story, instead of being told what to think and do, like they would in a typical speech.
  • And last, notice that Andrew let his audience draw their own conclusions and offer their own recommendations. Again, that’s what you do in storytelling. When you’re done telling the story, you pause and let the audience react. You give the story a chance to work. If you’re presenting data in typical corporate fashion, you make your recommendation up front and tell the audience exactly what conclusions to draw. Storytelling’s the opposite.

Now, compare all that to what Andrew could have done instead. He could have simply told the audience, “Look, we’re really short on cash this month, and I think I’m only going to have enough for about one-third of the payroll. Here’s what I’ve decided to do about it . . .” That’s what most of us would probably say in that situation. But notice—that’s not a story. It’s just a statement. And it’s not nearly as effective as the story Andrew told with 5 numbers.

This is one of my two favorite data storytelling methods. I call this one the “How we got here” method, because it walks the audience through the data in chronological order, showing he we’ve arrived at the predicament we’re in now. And then you pause to let your audience figure out what the predicament is, and what should be done about it.

If you want to learn more about telling stories with data, check out chapter 22 of my book, Sell with a Story. Or email me at paul@leadwithastory.com. And if you like the animations in the video, reach out to my friends at innk.io.

Good luck with your stories.

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Source: Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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