How to tell a compelling story (with data)

Trendline Interactive

5 minute read

Data: It’s one of the best of tools for email marketers; it’s one of the worst of tools. 

Apologies to Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities, but we stole that opening line from the master storyteller himself because it helps us reframe the role that marketing data plays in helping you achieve your marketing goals.

Data can support you for funding a technology overhaul, determine whether an email campaign succeeded or failed, tell you about your subscribers and customers and show skeptics how email boosts your company’s bottom line.

But the data by itself doesn’t tell the story. You must give the numbers a relevant context – and that’s where storytelling with data comes in. 

As Trendline’s Emma Warrillow points out in her blog post, “Making data memorable with storytelling,” “Data-driven storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool for engaging stakeholders and inspiring action.”

Storytelling is a valuable tool, both within your organization and for communicating with customers. It connects people and data to help them understand and take the actions you want.

Good storytelling takes more than “Once upon a time …” Here, we’ll explain how to craft a story, backed up by data, to achieve a goal.

3 reasons why data by itself isn’t enough

In brand storytelling, the data and the story are inextricably linked. You can’t expect your audience to understand what the data mean unless you give them context, and a story won’t grab attention and compel action without data to make it real and to back up your positions.

Today’s marketers have an enviable problem – they have more data than they can use. The numbers roll in faster than we can make sense of them. Marketers have to cope with these three main data-related problems:

  • Too much data. Email marketing is a treasure trove of data, with numbers rolling in everywhere – from our ESPs, our CRM systems, our marketing automation and ecommerce platforms, from campaign reports and customer surveys and web behavior and preferences and profit-and-loss sheets and budget projections … The list goes on and on. 

No matter how many dashboards you have to monitor, manage and visualize the data, it just keeps piling up. 

  • Not enough data context. Numbers by themselves don’t tell the story. We need to understand what the numbers are telling us and then translate what we learned into a story with meaning.

Take the much-maligned email open rate. By itself – 20% of your subscribers opened your last email campaign – it doesn’t tell us much. We need to track it over time to see whether it’s trending up or down, compare it to our transactional or reactivation emails and measure against industry benchmarks, like the median open rate for ecommerce promotional campaigns.

  • No connection to the “Why.” Why should someone care about these numbers? Your C-suite executives don’t care that 50% of new subscribers open your welcome email or that 25% of them click on it. But tell them it generates $3.50 net revenue per email, and they’ll pay attention.

7 questions for effective data-driven storytelling

The answers to these questions will help you build an effective story for any audience, whether it’s your team members, executives, customers, board of directors, potential investors or anyone else you want to persuade:

1. Who is your key audience?

This helps you select the right data and write the story that will deliver the strongest impact. Your executives have different priorities from your team members. Knowing your key audience will guide your decisions all through the storytelling process.

2. What is your key message?

The hardest part of dealing with a data avalanche is focusing on the right numbers. Avoid the temptation to wear your audience down with a barrage of number columns or to walk them through the entire process you used to reach your conclusion. Figure out your key message and the numbers that support it, and focus your story on that.

3. How should the data make your audience feel?

A good story elicits emotions – so should yours. Do you want them to get excited? Anxious? Fearful? Should they feel sentimental, motivated or angry? 

Suppose you want money for a new email sending platform that would replace your antiquated system. Your data can show your CFO how much time your team could save by adding lucrative triggered email programs. Your story could play on FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” showing how much money your company will lose by not updating.

4. What do you want your audience to take away from your story?

A good story has one outcome, moral or lesson. All of the data and all of your narrative must focus on that essential takeaway. Extraneous details can be distracting and even derail the entire project.

5. How can the data help your story make the greatest impact on your audience?

Every story has three ingredients that, when combined, give it the greatest creative wallop:

  • It’s memorable. Find data that stands out or resonates the most with your audience.
  • It’s compelling. This data, in the context of your story, is most likely to move your audience and allay skeptics.
  • It’s personal. Your audience members must be able to recognize themselves – or others – in your data and story. It could be something that keeps them up at night or tackles their most complex problems, makes them feel happy or proud of their role

6. Which visuals will enhance your story?

The more complex your data-driven story, the more you need to simplify the explanation. A well-chosen visual, such as a simple graph or chart, can supplement your narrative and demonstrate relationships among your numbers.

Whenever you tell a story, accompany it with visuals. 

Avoid “MEGO:” That stands for “My Eyes Glaze Over.” It happens when you let the data overwhelm your story. The last thing you want to make your audience do is to squint at rows of teeny-tiny numbers on a slide or in a graphic. That’s why you must boil down your data to the numbers that will advance your story.

This image represents an effective use of visuals used in different storytelling scenarios:

storytelling with data

This image from the CDC contains very few numbers; however, it was able to convey some powerful data about increasing caseloads, hospital capacity and the impact of limiting contacts and disease spread.  The story it told drove people to behave in unprecedented ways. 

“Storytelling with well-designed data visualization will help you simplify the more complex details of your story, and to communicate the key points quickly and effectively,” Emma writes. This is such an important aspect of storytelling that we’ll devote a separate post to the topic. Stay tuned!



7. How should you structure your story?

Keep it simple! Have one or two data points to support each story element:

Set the stage. State the problem or show (quickly) how the problem or situation developed (the “how we got here” stage)

Build tension. Explain what could happen if your audience doesn’t act.

Resolve the problem. Present the solution or expected outcome.   

Wrapping up

We’re beset by data every day, whether it’s in our personal lives or on the job. We need help making sense of the data when we need to use it for decision-making. That’s where a good story can move an audience to action. 

Backed by data, focused on a single message and crafted with a memorable, compelling and personal narrative, your story can move your audience to action and help you achieve any goal.

Trendline Interactive

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About the Author(s)

Trendline Interactive

Built from email marketing, Trendline Interactive is an agency and consultancy that inspires brands to create meaningful engagement through cross-channel communications. Our passion is that every single message sent is not only meaningful to the audience, but drives success for our clients.

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