Storytelling, the art of making numbers speak

Storytelling, the art of making numbers speak

What is storytelling?

In a very simple way, storytelling is the act of telling a story. In any presentation, whether it is marketing, financial, operational; it should always be conceived in the manner of a story. Yes, a story like we tell children!

Building your story

When I started reading about storytelling, the first thing that came to mind were my French classes in high school: the famous written productions. In our school classrooms, we learned to make a plan in 3 sections: introduction, argument, conclusion. Today, it’s exactly the same when making a presentation, regardless of the subject. Who said that what we learned at school was not useful to us as adults?

Introduction: Presenting the problem

It can be a decrease in sales, a new advertisement to do, a problem that was investigated following a survey. Even if it is, for example, a simple end-of-year review, we shouldn’t stop at platonic narration of each of the indicators one by one. To be interesting and capture the audience’s attention, a story must have a narrative. A story that everyone knows the ending to loses its interest. So you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What are they looking for? What is the difference between the current state of affairs and the goal they seek to achieve? The problem may lie precisely there, within the gap between these two states.

Argument: Convince to take action

Whereas in the previous section we set the scene and identified a problem, here we try to convince the audience to take action to resolve this problem. Who likes to be presented with a problem without having a single solution? No one! We must absolutely avoid pointing out the problem and then returning to our business, hoping that the problem will solve itself. We must propose possible solutions that could solve the problem. With the analysis of the data, we certainly already have an idea of how to solve the situation and therefore, we must convince the audience of a particular solution. In practical terms, how can we do this?

In her book entitled Storytelling with data – A data visualization guide for business professionals, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic provides some ideas:

  • Incorporate external context and benchmarks;
  • Give examples to illustrate your point;
  • Present figures that demonstrate the problem: and not just figures, graphs, illustrations; picture your solutions!
  • Demonstrate what will happen if nothing is done;
  • Present some possible solutions to start a discussion;
  • Illustrate the benefits of your solution;
  • Make it clear to your audience that they have the power to make a difference and take action.

Don’t forget to tailor the narrative to your audience’s goals. If the problem is operational, focus the discussion on what will motivate them to move: market share, increase revenues, beat a competitor? A pitch presenting an opportunity to bring in additional sales may be more convincing than the same opportunity that presents the possibility of improving customer satisfaction (even if they are most likely related).

Conclusion: Taking Action

This is when the next step is to be identified. What should your audience do with this new knowledge? One should never conclude with a simple recap. We must present what we expect next. We return to the specific issue raised at the beginning and reinforce the message about the importance of action.

We could also summarize the 3 sections of a presentation to these 3 simple questions:

In summary!

What? So what? Then what?

Always have these 3 questions in mind for your presentations!

Source: Cole NUSSBAUMER KNAFLIC, Storytelling with data – A data visualization guide for business professionals, Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, 2015.