Why stories matter

Understanding the science of storytelling

Source: Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Let’s start with an all too common problem.

You’ve spent days, weeks, or months doing user testing, collecting data, and analyzing it. You’ve been able to understand exciting patterns and trends in the data, and you’ve come up with a dozen key points that you think are worth mentioning.

How do you squeeze that into a single-hour presentation with your stakeholders?

That’s a challenge that you’ll face time and time again as you present your research findings, testing results, or any other presentation where you’ve worked with data.

Not to mention, regardless of what type of presentation there is, there are usually a few key things that can make this a little bit harder:

1. You may have become an expert with the data, while the people you are talking to may be novices.

2. You may have an audience that isn’t starting on the same page or with the same mindset.

3. You may want to have the same conclusion, but introduce various points that matter to different team members

So let’s go through these points one by one.

The unexpected knowledge gap

After spending a lot of time with the data, you’ve likely turned into a data expert.

Whether it’s able to identify more closely with your participants or understanding customer interactions through analytics data, the time you’ve spent learning about your audience has resulted in your learning more about a subject.

But the people you’re presenting to might not have the same level of knowledge. They may be familiar with the subject matter through previous experiences, but they likely don’t know the data you’ve collected and analyzed.

For example, when starting a new project and going through product/customer discovery, you might interview your users to discover their current workflow, which the rest of the team might not know too much about.

Or you might have new team members who have never worked on this type of project before.

That might mean that you have to help define the data context before you can get into the more technical aspects of the presentation. And that leads to the next problem.

Starting at different places

If your team has diverse experience levels with a subject, it already touches upon the knowledge gap. But there might be other factors that can cause your audience to start at different levels.

Maybe your developers are only on this project, but this is the 5th meeting in a row for your product manager.

Or your project owner has just come back from a week-long vacation.

Regardless, people may be in different mindsets and starting at other places. Without first spending time to make sure everyone’s starting at the same level, it might result in people getting lost within the first 5 minutes of the presentation.

Various points matter to multiple members of the team.

Lastly, despite how inclusive you are with your presentation, there are usually some points that your audience will ignore.

It’s not because of the presentation’s quality: instead, it’s because different things matter to other people.

The technical team is mainly concerned about things that they might have to build, maintain, or other technical details.

An agile coach will want to think about action items we have to move forward with and the other people he might need to gather for a meeting.

Not to mention the product owner and manager, who wants the information to make critical decisions.

So how can you address these points while making sure that people still reach the same conclusion?

That’s where stories can come into play.

The story-based mentality

One of the first things that stuck out to me when reading Alberto Cairo’s process was the different things that I hadn’t considered at this time:

Define the focus of the graphic, what story you want to tell, and the key points to be made. Have a clear idea of how the infographic will help your readers and what they will be able to accomplish with it.

Thinking back to my presentations, I felt like I had covered some of these when creating past visualizations.

I aimed to cover critical points, I had thought about what I wanted to accomplish with it, and I had an okay focus for the graphic.

But I was missing two things in my presentations:

  • What story did I want to tell, and how will this be useful for my readers?

  • Apparently, those things matters more than I realized.

To effectively engage your stakeholders and give a compelling presentation, you need to create a story with the data they will remember.

Why stories work

To understand why stories work, let’s first examine a presentation that sticks only to conventional wording.

  • Red Riding Hood (RRH) has to walk 0.54 mi from Point A (home) to Point B (Grandma’s)

  • RRH meets Wolf, who (1) runs ahead to Grandma’s, (2) eats her, and (3) dresses in her clothes

  • RRH arrives at Grandma’s at 2 PM, asks her three questions

  • Identified problem: after a third question, Wolf eats RRH

  • Solution: vendor (Woodsman) employs tool (ax)

  • Expected outcome: Grandma and RRH alive, the wolf is not

Is this something that you’re likely to remember? More importantly, if you read this as a child, instead of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, would you have remembered it now?

Probably not.

Stories stick: Research indicates that people are more than 20 times as likely to remember facts if they’re part of a story.[

Most presentations aren’t just about showing knowledge: you’re also trying to influence your audience to make certain decisions (such as approving design changes).

Well-designed stories, not plain information, have been the most effective method of exerting this influence.

Just think of any of the stories, fairy tales, or fables that you might have heard growing up. People have created stories with complex names, ideas, or lessons in mind, yet people can easily recall the characters in Lord of the Rings or the thoughts of Little Red Riding Hood with little trouble.

To effectively engage your stakeholders and give a compelling presentation, you need to create a story with the data they will remember. And that comes from understanding the elements of a story.

The elements of an information-based story

While most fictional stories can take their time opening up their stories, that doesn’t necessarily help with the type of stories journalists hope to convey.

If your average news story was structured like Lord of the Rings, with its slow-paced opening, then it’s very likely that no one would read it.

These information-based stories are comprised of different elements: a hook, the content, and a call to action. Here’s what each of them is.

The hook

How do you get readers to engage with your story? That’s something that every journalist has to worry about: after all, you’re asking a fair bit from your reader.

You’re not just asking them to take time and attention from their day to be here: you’re also asking them to do something with what you’re showing them.

So how do you grab their attention? We’ll talk about this in the next couple of sections, but for now, let’s just give a simple example of this.

One of the easiest ways to do this is what’s called an inverted pyramid: start with your conclusion, and trace your steps back through the process.

When you start with a conclusion, it’s a lot easier to tell what your story is about: to draw any conclusion about what you’ve seen, you need to figure out the rest of your story.

Was something a success? A failure? If you are able to define the conclusion of the story, then you know what story you want to tell.

And defining the conclusion also helps to understand if this story is something that your users are going to get. If the conclusion is highly technical, will your audience be able to understand it?

Or, if the conclusion that you’ve drawn isn’t that relevant to your key stakeholders, then perhaps you need to find a different story. But that’s not the only thing you have to consider.

The heart of the story

These may be the facts that you’ve drawn together, but it takes a bit more to turn it into story points. We’ll talk about this more in the following section, though.

The call to action

Rather than concluding with a fairytale ending, what do you want your audience to walk away with? While journalists are trained to remain neutral in expressing opinions, it is also helpful to think about the message you want your reader to take away.

You’ve hooked your readers in and presented the facts, but what do you want them to do with that? Are there organizations you should contact if you want to help? Are the things that they need to do?

But it may seem complicated to come up with this on your own, especially if you’re not sure where to start.

But there’s a technique that you can use to plan this all out. It begins by creating a storyboard outline.