Diana Burns | October 18, 2019
Sue knew she had a problem. Senior management needed to understand the survey data she and her team had collected. It looked at a number of complex factors, but revealed an undeniable trend — that client loyalty was trending downwards. That was a concern, and the senior team needed to understand the decline and deal with it.
As a statistician, Sue was used to reading and interpreting data. But she knew her audience — senior managers — weren’t. They were big-picture people, who cared most about how well the organisation was doing, what the risks and dangers were, and what strategies and actions would be needed to address them.
In the past, Sue had presented her data in a series of tables. That hadn’t gone too well. Some of the senior managers had misinterpreted the information, and hadn’t acted on it in time to avoid problems. She was determined that wouldn’t happen again. This time, she’d do things differently.
So Sue started her paper with a story. She told an anecdote about a couple of clients and why they had lost their loyalty to the organisation. Then, she extrapolated from the story, using the data to explain how the clients’ experience had been repeated in different ways with different groups. The theme of those stories was the overall trend of reduced loyalty.
Sue’s paper succeeded in getting the attention of the senior managers. Among the dozens of papers they dealt with at their meeting, Sue’s achieved cut-through. Her story made them see the human side of the data. It helped them to see what the data meant, and why it mattered, so they could take action on it.
We all like to think that we’re rational people who can deal with factual information. But really, we’re much more emotional than we may realise. Heuristics (the science of how we process information and make decisions) has shown that we tend to decide emotionally, and then justify our decision rationally.
Of course we can understand factual information. But that information has much more impact if it has emotion attached to it. And one of the best ways to build in emotion is through story.
We are all programmed to tell and hear stories. Our earliest ancestors told stories as they sat around the fire — stories of their exploits, what others had done, the dangers, the lessons to be learned. Throughout history, stories have been important to humans.
We know that children learn important lessons from stories: how to behave, to be aware of threats, and so on. But adults need stories too. We instinctively relate best to information that features people. We’re built that way.
Facts and figures can be dry, but adding human emotion makes them more interesting to us. This is why the media always covers the government’s annual Budget by finding people it affects. We don’t just hear that beneficiaries will receive an extra $20 a week: we hear a beneficiary explain what the increase will mean to their life. The same goes for families, retired people, middle-income people, and so on.
We are programmed to find people interesting. That’s why so many media stories start off with a story about a person or group, before moving on to the more abstract issue. We need to catch people’s attention first, and make them care.
The emotions your stories evoke need not be of the ‘shock/horror’ variety. Anything that causes an emotional response is valid, from pity and sorrow to humour and delight… and much more. Every subject has emotion in it — even those that seem dry and dull.
Money and finance is emotional for people because it involves their security, their dreams, and how well they can live. Insurance, banking, tax, and administration are all intensely emotional subjects if you can dig down to what they really mean for people. Start by asking ‘Why does this matter?’ and ‘Why would people care about this?’
Whenever you need decision-makers to engage with your point, a story will help. It doesn’t need to be long and complex. A scenario, a case study, or an example are all valid examples of storytelling. Tell the story early in your document. If you can grab your readers’ attention early, they will get your point more readily — especially if your story is easy, human, and relevant to your message.
You’re already an expert at storytelling, whether you know it or not. You tell stories several times a day. It may be standing around in the kitchen, beside the water cooler, or at the park. It may be on social media or by phone. You’ll tell someone what the kids have been up to, the drama of the leak in the roof, what happened when you missed the bus, or what you got up to last night.
When you tell these stories, you instinctively know how to make them interesting and engaging. You just need to transfer those skills to your work stories.
It will take a little thought and practice, but you can learn how to incorporate stories into your work writing. And it’s not just informal writing such as articles or web writing that benefit from storytelling. Even formal documents will be more engaging and easier to relate to if you can make them more human and compelling through stories.
Keen to learn more about storytelling at work? Our online course explains the why and how of storytelling. We take you step by step through exercises that help you create your own compelling stories.