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Making peace with storytelling and analytics

Jeff Zeanah
Jeff Zeanah

A number of years ago I was driving home to Alabama for the holidays. Typical of the season the driving was not easy.  It was getting dark early and the traffic was fairly heavy. I had the radio on to pass the time.  A talk show was on and the topic was Southern storytelling. The host was interviewing local storytellers.  As you would expect, it was entertaining, but about how to be a storyteller – not just stories.
The host asked one of the guests if they embellish stories. The answer was not unexpected, “Yes, of course.” I was chuckling to myself likely nodding my head with what I expected to hear and unprepared for the rest of the answer. “Of course I embellish, that is the only way to tell the truth.” Unfortunately, I did not catch the name of the talker to give proper attribution, because this sage advice needs attribution. Or perhaps this was a secret that all storytellers know, but few reveal.

As she continued with this strange response, I began to see the wisdom of the conflicting ideas. How can embellishing help you tell the truth? The storyteller explained that to properly tell a story, you have to set the mood, the feeling of the event and the emotions, the sights, the smells – everything. The listener cannot truly get those senses because they obviously were not there. Embellishment replaces the senses and gives the listener a more accurate description by increasing the experience. I experienced one of those moments of universal truth.
I have heard the advice that to explain analytics requires you to tell stories with numbers. 

Frankly, I have never felt comfortable with the advice. It seemed trite and incomplete. It is not unusual to hear advice like this, most of the advice you read on presenting analytics seems to be good, but flimsy without a core or foundation we normally have for other aspects of analytics.  Similarly, this storytelling with numbers advice needed a core reasoning for me to embrace it.
Perhaps I was conflicted with my recognition of the role of the embellishment of storytelling. Perhaps because I have seen poor work presented by expounding on anecdotal information accurately presenting one situation, but missing the main points of the population.  Or worse oversimplifying a complex system with a simple model and clean (but incomplete) story.  The world of analytics and the world of storytelling seemed to conflict.

Reading about storytelling from one of my heroes helped me with this conflict. And this too takes me back to Alabama. Edward O. Wilson, like me, spent years of his childhood in and around Mobile, Alabama. With wetlands, deltas, rivers, ocean, bogs, plains, pine trees, Spanish moss, heat and humidity and lots of bugs the place is an environmental wonderland.  Me?  I just enjoyed it.  E. O. Wilson?  He turned the experience into a passion and became recognized as the world’s greatest expert on ants, a career teaching at Harvard and world fame.  As he described it, “Every kid has a bug period … I never grew out of mine.”  His work with ants involved the study of their fascinating social systems and his thoughts on social systems led to thoughts on storytelling.

“The narrative genius of Homo sapiens is an accommodation to the inherent inability of the three pounds of our sensory system and brain to process more than a minute fraction of the information the environment pours into them. In order to keep the organism alive, that fraction must be intensely and accurately selective. The stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manuals.”  American Educator, Spring 2002

In short, stories are what we remember, not lists, not facts, not dates from high school history class – stories.  This fits well with what I have grown to believe about explaining analytics, that it is not a task evolved around presenting what we have found, but presenting the story (the data) in a way that the audience discovers for themselves. The results then become their story.  We accomplish this by being “intensely and accurately selective” in what we identify and point out in this new shared story.  A shared story that is not just discovered by us but with our help discovered by our audience as well. Self-discovery leads to a finding being internalized and remembered in the same way that the Southern storyteller’s embellishment puts the mood, the environment, the sounds and the smells in the audience’s head.
So what about embellishment? Does that lesson have a role for us?  Obviously that is not what we want to do with analytics. At its heart, analytics is strictly factual. I have come to realize that the replacement that serves the role of the embellishment that gives the audience a more accurate description is the visualization. One more graph, as close to perfect and complete and universally descriptive of the problem as possible is our embellishment.  If this embellishment is used as the main takeaway from a presentation, then it tells the story completely.

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Making peace with storytelling and analytics


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