Trying to Tell a Persuasive Data Story?

Even using the best data in the world, you are not always convincing. Most people do not find statistics or even hard-hitting facts that compelling.

It’s true.

What you need for a compelling data story is an empathic main character whom the audience wants to help.

Why Don’t Statistics Move Decision Makers?

Rarely are people moved by statistics. Most people make an emotional decision. Later they rationalize their decisions with facts. You must use this emotional connection to establish empathy in your audience. This empathy is built using other humans or even animals.

Retailers have been using this strategy with exceptional results. One retailer improved sales and decreased customer attrition by simply switching strategies. Their initial focus was on creating satisfied customers. This strategy didn’t get the results they wanted.

What caused the results to improve? When the company switched from satisfying its customers to establishing an emotional connection. They worked on perfecting what the humans cared about most.

Often when data professionals are thinking about the data, they fail to see “the human in the data.” Or even understand why the topic is needed by the person listening.

You have to humanize your data to have an impact and create an emotional connection.

And this “human” can even be a great white shark named Mary Lee. Jaime D’Agord did a masterful job establishing empathy for an apex predator.

Each Line of Data is Someone’s Story

Years ago I heard David McCandless speak about mining data. He didn’t like the favorite saying that “data is the new oil,” he preferred to think of data as the “new soil.”

This point resonated with me.

Yes! Data allows organizations to bring issues to light, solve problems, and improve processes. Let’s not forget that many of these data rows have a human connection.

In the data sets I use each day, there is a human on each row. Someone is withdrawing money for her grandchildren’s party. A man clicking on a web link about his dream home. Someone registering a complaint about a debt he already paid.

These tables have millions of rows — millions of emotions.

When a data story highlights others suffering, we can be influenced. After all, most of us do not want harm to come to others. We don’t want them to suffer; we don’t want that for ourselves. Any stories about these topics grab our attention.

In Rosling’s Ted Talk, Numbers are Boring. People are Interesting; he uses himself to make his point. He was encouraging the audience to change how they think about families by revealing his own story of sacrificing career goals for staying at home with his children.

More often he used people as the persuader, not statistics, about why this idea is a good one for society in general. Dr. Rosling is no longer with us, but we miss his masterful storytelling.

Add the Human to Persuade Management

A quality engineer was on a team who needed to change a departmental workflow process. No one was using the existing one because it was cumbersome. It was causing issues for the downstream users.

The best solution was to invest in some new equipment. It seems like a slide deck with graphs breaking down the process issues was in order. Present it to management and wait for the marching orders. The desired equipment was expensive. It was not going to be an easy sell.

The team took a different route by pulling the employee names from the data table. They interviewed each of them about the issues they faced. The workers had some common sense reasons not to follow the process.

They were not insubordinate; in fact, the people were trying to get work done despite the failed process. The resulting presentation highlighted each employee’s experience. The team masterfully presented data to support the narrative.

This storytelling technique worked like magic.

The management team better understood the human side of the issue. Notice that flashy charts and statistics did not convince anyone; it was the data stories — the humans in the data. The management team empathized with the workers. They wanted to solve the problem to create a better working environment.

Tell a Powerful Data Story

When you create your data story, keep the human in mind.

Humans are how you make an emotional connection with your audience. Review your data and find the lead characters that live within it. You can tell their stories when you are explaining to others what needs to change and why.