Numbers are Slippy, Stories are Sticky

Aug 05 2010

“The story - from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace - is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding.  There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”  - Ursula K. Le Guin

The trouble with data

I always have trouble with numbers - somehow I find it difficult to relate to them without some context.  Although I studied mathematics for 3 years at university, numbers without context have no emotional resonance for me.  Perhaps you feel the same way too?  Some of the numbers in the media today are so large that it is very difficult to grasp their significance (particularly when they refer to countries’ debts)!  There is more data and information in our lives than ever, but it seems that the more information we have the less meaningful each individual piece becomes.

In Made to Stick, the authors use a great example of this.  If I tell you that a standard serving of movie popcorn (sampled from a representative sample of different cinemas) contains 37 grams of saturated fat, the statement has very little meaning.  However, if I were to tell you that a standard serving of movie popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, Big Mac and fries lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings, combined, you might be shocked (I hope you are)!

How do we make ideas stick?

Made to Stick and A Whole New Mind (along with many other books) focus on the importance of stories to make ideas stick (in addition to simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility and emotion).  I would argue that if you have a good story then these other elements should already be present. Stories add context and emotional resonance to data which lacks impact without them.  Simplicity, concreteness, credibility and and emotion come easily when we can integrate data with broader understanding of a business issue, explaining the relationships between data points, and synthesising ideas.   And I’ve yet to come across a data set which did not contain something unexpected!

If we can create a great story then we will always be able to communicate a clear, actionable, valuable and relevant strategy to our clients, and in a memorable way.  Market researchers are (or should be) in the business of driving business change, and such change is only effected by providing new emotional connections which can create future value for clients.

What’s in it for researchers?

What are the benefits of moving from building blocks of data to narrative presentations?

* Stories support greater impact of key messages, ensuring that they are understood and remembered and therefore more likely to be used as part of clients’ internal decision making processes.

* Stories simplify complexity, helping us to communicate the relationships between different pieces of the picture enabling others to strengthen mental associations and remember the whole as well as the pieces.

* Stories help us to get buy in, providing more actionability and reducing barriers to moving forward by bringing data to life.

* Stories enrich data, helping us to involve and inspire audiences, particularly when we bring colour and meaning to them with use of vivid metaphors and images creating greater emotional engagement.

* Stories are entertaining, creating anticipation, interest and continued attention (after all, we all want to hear how it ends!).

What makes a story?

How do we create stories from blocks of unrelated information?  I believe it comes down to creating relationships (including time and causality) between different pieces of information, and using symbols and metaphors to visualise those relationships.  E.M. Forster once observed that a fact is, “the queen died and the king died”, whereas a story is “the queen died and the king died of a broken heart”.

DVL Smith and JH Fletcher provide some tools and frameworks for combining multiple data sets in their book The Art and Science of Interpreting Market Research Evidence.  These include mapping the ‘weight of evidence’ by comparing depth of feeling with balance of opinion; ‘power of evidence’ by comparing consistency with prior knowledge and integrity of evidence; and ‘direction of evidence’ by comparing the internal consistency (ie within each data set) and external consistency (across data sets) of information.

My main piece of advice is to always start with the big picture before diving into detail.  My experience is that most researchers tend to work the other way around, which is a fatal mistake.  Start first with the business goals and objectives (ideally before you write the proposal and not when you are writing the presentation!).  Create some hypotheses or questions based on current understanding and on the desired outcomes or actions from the research.  Do some secondary research and find out what you can discover about the brand or category or think about current relevant trends.  Above all, look at the business issue in the context of the marketplace and the client’s long term goals.

When you have reviewed the big picture, then focus on the big answer.  Start with an elevator speech and then develop a story around the key themes and outcomes.  Hypotheses and questions will help you create a story around these themes - they often add the tension or opposition which is needed to create interest.  Key insights in the data can be used to help bind the structure of your story together, and should be the focus for identifying relationships between pieces of information.

Stories are simply time-bound narratives, which means that they have a beginning, middle and end, starting with a complication (the problem) and ending with a resolution (the solution), and including some kind of struggle or challenge in the middle.  Stories only work if there is a progression or movement, such that we feel that we have reached a different place at the end of the story than when we started (with the possibility that there could have been a different ending).  Finally, stories should be self contained, so that nothing happens without a reason (ie only include what is relevant to the story).

Why are stories so powerful?

Stories have always been used to pass down wisdom.  Our brains have evolved to recall temporal events with recognisable characters and context.  If you try to remember something, you will find that you don’t just remember an idea in isolation, but you will remember it as part of a progression and in relation to other ideas (ie a narrative and context).  In The Literary Mind, Mark Turner writes that, “Narrative imagining - story - is the fundamental instrument of thought ….. Rational capacities depend on it.  It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining …… Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organised as stories”.

Stories are simulations, which are used by our brains to understand events and more importantly imagine potential futures.  When we simulate an experience in our mind, the same parts of our brain are used as when we are involved in the real experience.  Amazingly, mental practice of an activity, such as learning an instrument, can provide up to two thirds of the benefits of real physical practice.  In telling clients stories we are helping them to imagine the future!

The power of stories

Presenting research evidence as narrative will help you build more impactful and influential presentations.  Smith and Fletcher identify three key benefits of story telling which provide a good summary.

1) Stories are the way that decision makers think.  Clients do not want to have to connect the dots for themselves, but want a structure that helps them to think and decide while they listen.

2) A narrative approach provides greater flexibility, allowing you to zoom in and out while still maintaining a big picture narrative.  Building block approaches do not have this flexibility.

3) Stories symbolise and actualise a holistic analysis approach, conveying that the presenter has drawn together different pieces of information to arrive at a complete integrated and thoughtful whole.

Stories help us simplify, communicate and activate information more effectively.


Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

The Art and Science of Interpreting Market Research Evidence by DVL Smith & JH Fletcher

The Literary Mind by Mark Turner

3 responses so far

  1. I really enjoyed this piece of writing. I was searching for the quote by Ursula le Guin’s and got sidetracked then into reading your blog because of the opening lines about numbers needing context.

    Would you be OK with me quoting your website in relation to le Guin’s quote as I can’t seem to find the original.

    I would also like to quote your paragraph:
    How do we create stories from blocks of unrelated information? I believe it comes down to creating relationships (including time and causality) between different pieces of information, and using symbols and metaphors to visualise those relationships. E.M. Forster once observed that a fact is, “the queen died and the king died”, whereas a story is “the queen died and the king died of a broken heart”.

    Can you please let me know if you do not wish me to quote you in my blog?

    Thanks and best wishes

  2. Laura

    Please feel free to quote from the blog and reference. I think I got the le Guin quote from another book source, but can’t remember exactly which! Glad you enjoyed reading and thanks for sharing.

    Kind regards,


  3. Thanks for your prompt reply Neil.

    I eventually found the source for le Guin. It’s from page 31 of The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
    Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Wood.

    In fact I think it’s a quote from an earlier journal that’s quoted in the book, but I’m not going that far!

    I appreciate your willingness to be quoted.

    (I just got sidetracked again by your archetypes tags. Great stuff in there for a tarot enthusiast.)


Leave a Reply