A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling with Data

Can you use the same storytelling techniques with data that you can with words?

Of course, you can. In a previous article, I shared one method of telling stories with data. In the video above, I’ll show you another method that I call the “Discovery Journey” story method. And it has nothing to do with making better charts and graphs or fancier presentation slides. I’m talking about applying the same techniques you would use when crafting a story with words – things like a story structure, conflict, resolution, emotion, and surprises.

Everything you need to try it out yourself is in the video. But, if you’d rather read than watch, it’s all explained below.

This method works by walking your audience through your personal journey of discovery as you conducted your analysis that led you to your big idea and your recommendation. But instead of you announcing your discovery at the end, you allow your audience to have the same ‘ah-ha’ moment of discovery that you had and come to that conclusion themselves.

So, notice a couple things about this method.

  • First, unlike the “How we got here” method I talked about in the last video, the main character in this story isn’t the business. It’s you. What I mean by that is, instead of walking the audience through data showing what happened in your business from beginning, to middle, to end of some time period, you’re walking your audience through the analysis you did right up to the point that you had your aha moment of discovery.
  • Second, like the other method, notice this is not the way we’re generally taught to make a presentation. Most of us were taught to start a presentation with the recommendation up front, then explain the reasons for that recommendation, followed by the data or evidence that supports that rationale. Recommendation, reasons, evidence.

These data storytelling techniques, though, are precisely the opposite of that. Just like in real storytelling, you don’t find out what the result is until the end of the story.

Let’s look at an example to see how it works:

In the summer of 2000, I worked for a disposable diaper manufacturer. I had an opportunity to develop and present a five-year strategy recommendation to the president and leadership team.

After a few weeks of analysis and preparation, I had my big moment with the leadership team. Now, they were probably expecting a traditional presentation where I would stand up, tell them what my recommendation was, and then justify that recommendation with all the details of my analysis. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I told them the following:

Every one of you in this room has been taught since you joined the company that if you deliver the sales volume, the profits will follow. And our strategy in this business unit reflects that belief. All of our plans are directed at selling more diapers. Period. So, in preparation for this meeting, I decided to do some research to find out if that assumption was true.

I looked back over our nearly 40-year history making disposable diapers in the U.S., and here’s what I found. For the first 21 years, there was a near perfect correlation between sales and profits, which is probably why we’ve all been taught this mantra.

But when I looked at the data since 1982, it told a very different story. From 1983 to 2000, there was absolutely no correlation between sales volume and profits whatsoever.

The scatter plot of this data is quite shocking, so I just paused there while the audience took it in. And then I asked them this question:

What do you think could have happened around 1983 to change all this?”

Someone answered, “Is that when our biggest competitors launched their brands?”

“That was my first guess, too,” I said. “But I checked, and they launched several years earlier. Any other ideas?”

Someone else asked, “Is that when commodity costs got out of control?”

“Another good guess,” I said. “I thought about that, too. But it turns out that happened in the late ’70s. Anyone else?”

And I continued to let the audience throw out guesses, most of which I’d considered myself. And at some of the quieter moments, I mentioned a few of the other dead-end hypotheses I’d chased. But with each question and answer, I gently guided them along the path I took until eventually, someone in the room said, “Is that maybe when the market matured?”

“Bingo!” I yelled. “That’s it! Before we launched disposable diapers in the early ’60s, everyone used cloth diapers. But it’s not like once disposable diapers came out, everybody switched from cloth immediately. It took years for that to happen. In fact, it turns out it took exactly 21 years.

“By 1983, the market for disposable diapers had essentially reached 100 percent of households with kids who wore diapers, and cloth diapers had almost entirely vanished from the marketplace. Up to that point, everyone making disposable diapers had rapidly growing sales numbers, and the rapidly growing profit numbers to go with them. The cloth diaper makers, of course, were going out of business.”

What that means is that the disposable diaper business in the United States went from a ‘developing market’ to a ‘mature market’ in 1983. And apparently, we’d failed to notice it. We were still following the same basic ‘sell more’ strategy we’d been using during the developing market period.

Of course, an appropriate business strategy for a mature market is usually very different. And my audience knew it.

But I never got to say any of that in my presentation. As soon as someone got the point about market penetration, there was a very audible and collective “Ohhhh” in the room. And right after that, all of my conclusions started pouring out the mouths of my audience like a well-rehearsed screenplay. And right after that, my recommendations started coming out of their mouths. I never even got to my recommendations slide. And I didn’t have to. My recommendations had become their recommendations. It was undoubtedly the most effective presentation I made in my 20 years with the company. All of my recommendations were adopted immediately.

Why was that presentation so successful? The answer is because human beings are naturally more passionate about pursuing their own ideas than they are about pursuing your ideas. Inadvertently, I’d turned my ideas into their ideas. And this discovery journey story, as I call it now, is the reason why.

So, let’s see how that data became a story.

  • First of all, it was structured like a real story. All the background of my project and the early data I found was the context – the beginning of the story. The challenge came when I found the strange relationship between sales and profits that changed in 1983, and I obviously wanted to know why. The conflict was all the work I did to solve that mystery. It was thinking up hypotheses, testing them out, and finding that they didn’t seem to work. Then, there was thinking up another solution and finding out it didn’t work either. The resolution was the final discovery of the right answer.
    Then I transitioned out of the story to the lessons, which were the conclusions of the analysis. And finally, I put the strategy recommendations at the end, just like it should be for storytelling, instead of at the beginning like in a typical presentation.
  • Second, notice this twist. When I got to the conflict, instead of just telling them about my struggle to find the right answer, I let them struggle with it themselves. And I let them continue to struggle with it until they found the solution I’d found. I gave them the gift of discovery that I’d had. And that’s what turned my recommendations into their recommendations.
  • Third, notice the emotional impact of the dramatic pause while I let my audience assess the data in the scatterplot.
  • Fourth, notice the element of surprise and the end when someone finally got the right answer to the mystery of what happened in 1983.
  • And last, notice that instead of telling my audience what the conclusions and recommendations were, I let them come up with their own. Again, that’s what you do in storytelling. When you’re done telling the story, you pause and let the audience react. Give the story a chance to work.

To use this method, you certainly don’t have to give your audience all the data that you had or take them through all the wrong turns and dead ends you went through. Just give them enough of the wrong turns for them to see you struggle a little, and just enough of the data for them to struggle a bit themselves before finding the right answer. You may have to help them along like I did.

If you want to learn more about telling stories with data, check out chapter 22 of my book, Sell with a Story. Or visit me at leadwithastory.com. 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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