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“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
— Jean-Luc Godard

Back in 2015, the Harvard Business Review, predicted data-driven storytelling would be the next big trend in content marketing. And they weren’t talking about binary code short stories or the Matrix’s digital rain. The reality of data-driven storytelling is much more routine (and much more exciting) than that. It’s a way of looking at the world and translating facts into emotions that inspire brand love. 

What is data-driven storytelling? 

Which would you prefer to read: endless columns of data or a story about that data’s real-world impact? If you’re like most people, you’ll choose the story. Unless, of course, you need help falling asleep at night. If that’s the case, then spreadsheet on! 

Stories are universal. They’ve been around for as long as humans have. And they existed long before reading or writing. We use stories to pass information from one generation to the next. Fairytales and fables teach children about our society’s moral code. And they’re an effective way for groups to bond. Just think about the stories that get told around campfires at summer camp, year after year. Or the family stories that get swapped around the holiday dinner tables.  

Why are stories so compelling?

According to TCK, “As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them.” Not only do they help us understand our place in the world. They also help shape the way we view the world. 

TCK explains, “Your brain experiences imagined narratives as if they were real. There is little difference between how our brain processes information when we read or hear stories and when we experience reality. To our brain, it’s all the same.”

The role of stories in marketing

As Christopher Penn puts it, “No child will ever ask you to read them a press release at bedtime. They want you to tell them a story. So do your customers.”

Stories in marketing serve the same purpose as stories in the broader world. They’re the backbone of your company’s personality. They help your audience connect with your brand through empathy and emotion. And they’re an easy way for you to communicate your brand’s How and Why, not just the what. 

At their core, brand stories are an argument. They’re trying to convince your audience that your brand is trustworthy and relevant to their interests. And, to be convincing, that argument needs to be backed by facts. But, “according to studies, when we read facts, we keep our guard up, looking for inconsistencies and missteps.” It’s a classic catch-22. And stories are the solution. 

Cue the “data” in data-driven storytelling 

“Storytelling without data is fluff. Data without storytelling is forgettable. Data with storytelling is epic,” says Paul Petrone, editor in chief of the LinkedIn Learning blog. And this assertion is research-backed. 

In a recent study, researchers asked students to present a one-minute persuasive pitch to their classmates. On average, each talk included 2.5 statistics. Only one student had a story in their pitch. Then the researchers asked the students to write down every idea they remembered. Only 5% of the students remembered a statistic. But 63% of the students recalled the story. 

These days, we have more data at our fingertips than ever before. Thanks to machine learning, AI, and advancements in data-mining, we can practically predict the color of the shirt you’re wearing as you read this. But how do we communicate that information without boring people to tears? Especially today, when the average person has the attention span of a goldfish.

So, what do we mean when we talk about stories? 

Not every story needs to start with Once upon a time. But at the most basic level, every story needs characters, a conflict, and some sort of resolution.  

Characterizing your data

Let’s consider give-back brands, like TOMS and Warby Parker. According to the TOMS impact report, they’ve “given almost 100 million shoes to people in need.” Standing alone, that’s an impressive number. It might warrant an affirming head shake, but it’s going to have to work hard to win over hearts and minds. 

But imagine if each of those 100 million pairs of shoes was the hero of its own story. You can paint a picture of those shoes protecting children’s feet as they walk to and from school. You can imagine young entrepreneurs around the world wearing these shoes as they walk, bike, and bus to their big business pitches. 

Through stories, those shoes become more than cotton, polyester, and canvas. They become opportunities, dreams, and potential. They’re a horizon for uncharted possibilities. 

Alternatively, the main character of your data-driven story could be the pain point that your product or service solves. Allstate taps into this concept with their long-standing character, Mayhem. As the personification of everything that can go wrong, this character takes data about mishaps, accidents, and natural disasters and turns them into stories. 

Addressing pain points

Consider this story that Google told back in 2013. A long-lost friendship, fond childhood memories, and a tearful reunion. And through it all, the world’s biggest search engine is there providing answers. In this example, there’s no sales pitch or list of features. But the story skillfully shows the customer’s pain point—lack of information—and how Google solves it: quickly and easily. 

Whether your customer is looking for a better brand, wants to save the world, or just needs an innovative solution to an everyday problem, they want something. Through storytelling, you can prove that what they want is your brand. 

Tying it all together

The best stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And there are a few ways to provide resolution when it comes to data-driven storytelling. You could show how the story you just told supports your brand’s values. Or reflect on how your product solves their pain points. 

You can consider resolution the Why behind your storytelling. This final push inspires your audience to hold a particular viewpoint or take a specific action. As Articulate notes, “Once you know what message you want to convey, you can ensure each chapter of each story in each campaign reinforces that message.” 

For a data story to move an audience to action, the idea must be simple. Follow this Instagram account. Buy this product. Enroll in this service. Often, when the story gets too convoluted or tries to make too many points, the resolution becomes unclear. 

Ready to turn your data into a good story?

So, you see the value and you’re ready to get started. Great! What comes next? Whether you’re putting together an email campaign, sending out internal reports, or updating your website copy, there are a few key components to successful data-based stories. 

1. Start with the data

The temptation is to start with a story and find data that supports it. But this can be a dangerous practice. In reflecting on data-driven storytelling, Paul Petrone cautions, “The biggest mistake marketers make is they write the story ahead of time, as opposed to letting the story come to them.” When you start with the data, you might find trends you didn’t know you were looking for. You’ll be able to tell more authentic stories that carry more weight. 

2. Narrow your focus

One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is trying to cram too much information into every story. Especially in the age of big data, when we have so much information at our fingertips. But the more ideas you introduce, the more likely you are to lose your audience along the way. When it comes to data-driven storytelling, less is more. By honing in on just one or two key statistics, you can craft even more impactful messaging. 

3. Don’t forget the visuals

A story might be worth a thousand spreadsheets. But a picture is still worth a hundred words. As you’re putting your story together, don’t neglect the role of visuals. Whether you’re using branded colors, high-quality images, or even custom infographics, data visualizations give your audience one more avenue to understand your message.  

It takes a team to tell good stories

Data-driven storytelling is unique in that it requires a higher level of cooperation. It asks your strategic team to look at data more creatively and your creative team to think more strategically. With the right team in place, it’s a collaborative process. Your analysts communicate vital points to your storytellers, who translate the data into a narrative that matters to your clients. 

Here at Savy, we’ve got an in-house team that specializes in this type of collaboration. To see some of the stories we’re telling, check out our case studies page. To learn more about how we can use data to tell your story better, get in touch