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Helping Big Data Scientists be Storytellers

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 5, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling

We’ve said often on this blog that you just don’t get the benefits of storytelling (meaning, memory, caring) unless you are telling a story.

Over at the HBR blog last week Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin from DoSomething.org wrote a piece entitled A Data Scientist’s Real Job: Storytelling.

Their point was simple. Data on its own is not enough. People have to make sense of it and stories can make a difference. Can’t disagree with that.

But as you read through the article you notice that they don’t give any examples of stories about data and then their three points of advice had nothing to do with stories.

A recent commenter on the piece, Nahum Gershon, nailed it when he said:

I think the article somewhat confuses storytelling with providing clear presentations of the essence of data and information.  Not all effective and rational explanations or scenarios constitute a story.  Using storytelling elements could make a representation more effective and it would be beneficial that data scientists learn the art of storytelling to make their presentations even more effective.

This is a common mistake. Everyone is talking about stories these days but when you ask them what they mean they are often can’t really tell you a story.

So what could they have said which would help Big Data Scientists actually use stories? Well, I think they could have mentioned that stories have structure (and yes, there are variations). Here’s a simple one that could help a scientist (or business leader) to tell a story about their data.

  • In the past it was like this …
  • And then something happened (that we didn’t expect or was remarkable) …
  • And as a result of that …
  • Until finally …

The famed influence psychologist, Robert Cialdini, discovered another story-based way to present scientific data and wrote it up in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Just reveal your big data as a mystery story.

Here’s the structure:

  • Pose the mystery
  • Deepen the mystery
  • Home in on the proper explanation by considering (and offering evidence against) alternative explanations
  • Provide a clue to the proper explanation
  • Resolve the mystery
  • Draw the implications for the phenomenon under study

To test this structure out a while back I wrote a blog post using the mystery format called ‘What is happening to Melbourne’s trains?

My advice to scientists, however, is don’t write your stories, just tell them while presenting your data. A story told and a story written are worlds apart. But that’s probably for another post.

The best stories contain data. To think “on the one hand is the story” and “on the other hand is the data” is just wrong headed. Now we need to help scientists find and tell the stories that bring their data to life.

Cialdini, R. B. (2005). “What’s The Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? The Answer Is In The Title.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(1): 22-29.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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