Data storytelling: Using number translations to give data meaning

Shortly after successfully persuading his colleagues of the need to establish a PMO using his newly acquired story skills, his bosses asked Anil to do the impossible: “We now need you to reduce your budget by 30% each year.”

I’m coaching Anil in story technique, and we discussed how he might argue against this directive. We felt his leaders needed to understand exactly what they were asking in concrete terms, and we thought a good number translation would help.

The objective was to reframe the number (30% deduction each year) into something the leaders have personally experienced, something they could feel. We also wanted to move away from percentages to whole, concrete numbers and something they could visualise.

Backyard cricket

We hit on cricket. Like Australians, Indians love their cricket. So we thought the number translation might look something like this.

A 30% reduction, year-on-year, will diminish our standing. It’s like gathering your cricket team of 11 players on the field then slashing a couple of players each year. You’ll only have two left in five years, and that’s just backyard cricket. We’ll lose our professionalism.

A good number translation is a mini-story, and at the very least, it should be visual and told at a human level.

We teach how to create effective number translations in our Story-Powered Data program. Our last program was with a Silicon Valley games company, and they were particularly inventive.

While we have had a long-term interest in analogies at Anecdote, Chip Heath and Karla Starr’s latest book, Making Numbers Count, rekindled my interest in number translations.

Maria Konnikova, in The Biggest Bluff, puts it this way:

“But here’s what psychologists find, over and over: you can show people all the charts you want, but that won’t change their perceptions of the risks or their resulting decisions. What will change their minds? Going through an event themselves, or knowing someone who has.”

Many of Anil’s bosses have gone through the event of backyard cricket, and while fun, it’s not the real deal. I’ll keep you posted on how the number translation goes.

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:


  1. Jo Carne says:

    Great example- thanks!

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