04.05.2016 by Bill Shander
By Bill Shander
“Storytelling is the new infographic,” I recently heard someone snidely remark. Her intent was to deride storytelling as the latest fad, or junk marketing. She assumes the lemmings will soon move on to another dumb idea, at which point we can safely ignore storytelling and go back to whatever we were doing before.
She hit me in two spots there – storytelling and infographics. But here’s the thing; she is dead wrong on both counts. Yes, infographics were (and still are) ‘hot’ and everyone is making them, which is why there are so many god-awful infographics out there! But visual communications are critical, especially when communicating data. So you and I both know they aren’t going anywhere. They are valuable and not just a fad.
Same goes for storytelling. I would argue storytelling is such a fundamental part of human communications that audiences crave our stories. The more we make our content look, feel and sound like stories, the more compelling and impactful our communications will be.
Why? Think about it – for 50,000+ years, humans have been communicating with each other via story. We told each other stories around the fire to explain how we managed to escape lions, how we successfully chased down a gazelle for dinner, and where we found those delicious red berries – not to mention where we found those awful tasting berries that killed cousin Joe. (Sure! There were a lot cavemen named ‘Joe’… just roll with it). This is how humans learn things from each other.
These stories – whether fiction or non-fiction – have certain ingredients. All stories are linear experiences. There is a beginning, middle and end. There are variations in flow. They use techniques like building anxiety and anticipation, developing action to some sort of climax, and rounding things down to a conclusion. These ingredients revolve around characters and plots. Just as noodles are vehicles for whatever fat-dripping sauce is ladled over them, those characters and plots are really just vehicles to enable the key ingredient: emotion.
Because it’s the emotion in the story that sticks with us, that connects, that makes the story about me. And this is really important. Stories, every single one of them, are about me. In Useful Fictions, Michael Austin argues there is an evolutionary advantage to stories. Their primary purpose is to create and then resolve anxiety – to teach me that I can survive scary things.
Let’s refer again to the caveman days. Every time the sun went down, and there was rustling in the grass, chances are a lion was about to eat you! So stories about lions attacking people were very realistic learning opportunities – to reinforce the idea that we should be afraid, which would teach us to run, and like the characters in those stories, hopefully, survive. And the stories would teach us that by running we can survive. “Anxiety is the most adaptive emotion,” Austin says.
What if you’re talking about a story that involves your company’s 3rd quarter budget numbers, or a story about market opportunities for a new pharmaceutical product to treat toe fungus in the EU? Hardly a hotbed of emotion, right? There is nothing less emotional than a pile of numbers about abstract things. Think again!
5 Ways to Tap Into Emotion with Your Data
I have a few recommendations for turning your dry pile of numbers into an anxiety-soaked storytelling opportunity. And they borrow heavily from the skills I learned studying journalism.
1) Make it Real
Don’t think of your data as data. If you can make your numbers into real, tangible things, and eliminate abstraction, then you can access the ingredients for a story. For instance, your 3rd quarter budget numbers aren’t simply budget numbers. They are the result of people selling more (or less) stuff, your competitors acting in the marketplace, and legislators passing regulations that effect your business. So weave that into a story that hits on the sources and causes of the numbers. Be specific and anecdotal. Bring reality to it, and use the numbers to highlight and enhance that reality.
2) Make it Accessible
Part of making your numbers ‘real’ is making them really real – things your audience can understand. For instance, say you’re creating an infographic about the legal industry’s impact on the US economy. As it turns out, the US economy (GDP) is about $18 trillion a year. And the legal services industry is about $230 billion. These numbers are big and very hard to wrap your head around. And it’s hard to quickly get a sense of what that smaller number means as a proportion of the whole (it’s 1.3% of the total GDP).
How can we make these numbers relatable so my story will resonate and not devolve into a million little fact shards that hurt my head? Make them into their own little story using metaphors and comparisons to things people can understand. That can be simple, like talking about it like “if the US economy were $100, then the legal services industry would be…” The metaphor should tie in with the overall story, of course, helping reinforce the bigger story and not distract from it. And if the metaphor can be specific and start getting to emotions, all the better: “Say the total economy was $100 in your grandmother’s pocketbook. The legal services portion is made up of 10 dimes and 3 pennies, all sticky and dusty from the bottom of her change purse that she has been using since 1972.”
3) Don’t Forget the Anxiety
I really believe this is the key emotional component of most great stories. What’s going to happen? Will we survive? Every data story is a story about real things happening to real people. If the numbers go one way or the other, it means people living or dying, championships being won and lost, economies expanding or crumbling. Bring in that human element and be sure to communicate those impacts and the opportunities to reverse those impacts, if relevant. If the toe fungus product can’t penetrate the EU, think of the trauma inflicted during the summer sandal season. By the way, one of the most powerful emotions is disgust, so you have some real opportunities with that toe fungus story!
4) Entice the Senses
The data may be driving the effort, but while you’re injecting emotion and humanity into it, be sure to arouse other senses as well. Studies have shown that using words (and showing images of things) like ‘coffee’ will actually trigger the portions of the brain related to smell and taste. The more parts of the brain that you can arouse with your story, the more memorable and impactful your story will be. Neutral words (like “GDP” and “law firm”) don’t have that power.
5) Make it Linear (and Non-Linear)
A study looking at data storytelling found that the most effective form of these experiences lies in the middle of an “author-driven” and “reader-driven” spectrum. In other words, they are somewhat linear experiences with an “author” driving the flow, and they are somewhat exploratory experiences with the “reader” making decisions. In other words, they are linear flows with a heavy editorial hand, along with opportunities to explore along the way. So it’s a click-through slideshow or a “scrollytelling” experience with little interactive bits along the way that the reader can dive further into.
Stories are here to stay, even if ‘storytelling in marketing’ is a bit of a flash in the pan. And storytelling with data is really just storytelling, but with data. Craft a great story and remember that your data is just a supporting character – something to help give your stories meaning. Your stories are really about people and actions and realities that your data help define.
Bill Shander is the founder of Beehive Media, a Boston-based data visualization and information design consultancy. He specializes in creating interactive experiences for thought leadership, research, advocacy and knowledge management.
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