Making data memorable with storytelling

Emma Warrillow

3 minute read

Marketing analysts work hard to gather and analyze data, to generate insights, and to find a variety of impactful ways to present their findings to their audience with impressive data visualizations. But, if analysts want to capture their audience’s attention and to truly resonate with them––and for their audience to actually use their findings in business decisions––they’ll need to use storytelling to make the data more memorable.  

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book ‘Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die’ they demonstrate that stories are far more memorable than statistics. The Heath brothers reference a test they conducted where they asked students to give one-minute speeches.  In the average one-minute speech, the average student used 2.5 statistics, and only one in ten used storytelling. On the other hand, when the audience was asked to recall the aforementioned speeches, only 5% remembered any individual statistic from the speeches but an impressive 63% remembered the stories.

Data-driven stories not only allow marketing analysts  to convey content and provide context, but they have been shown time and time again to increase recall. People don’t remember numbers on a spreadsheet; they remember stories. And people repeat stories.

Data-driven storytelling

The purpose of analysis in an organizational context is to facilitate decision-making. If the decision-maker is going to take action based on your findings, they have to really understand what you are telling them. Overwhelming them with facts and figures—without a clear, compelling narrative—will not give them enough confidence to use the information.

Many statisticians would be tempted to believe the work is “done” after they complete the rigorous analytic procedures required to process the data and organize it in the database. However, we know that it takes nearly as much time and effort for analysts to turn that processed data into stories. Data-driven storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool for engaging stakeholders and inspiring action. 

Make the time to craft the story

For most analysts storytelling can go a little against the grain. “All of the data is important,” an analyst might say. “How can we possibly distill it into a repeatable story or a single ‘sound bite?’” The answer is we must.

Stories don’t need to be long or difficult to write.  Start by identifying which story it is you want to tell (the ‘right’ story), then craft that story based on your intended audience, and support the story with clean data visualizations.  Crafting your story with your intended audience in mind will help you to highlight the most important data to them based on what it will be used for, which will make it all the more relevant.  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.  

The time needed to craft stories effectively should never be underestimated ––or the value of that time.  Clients will remember Brenda, the “Deal Seeker and Stockpiler,” and the story of her overflowing closet full of toilet paper and shampoo, far better than a spreadsheet showing that there is a group of customers who over-index on bulk purchases and buying on sale.

The impact of a well-told story

You might be wondering if all the hard work that goes into storytelling with data is really worth it?  For a  wonderful example of just how impactful a data-driven story can be we can look to Sport England, a government body responsible for growing and developing grassroots sport and getting more people active across England.  

A few years ago, Sport England noticed a disturbing trend in their numbers.  Women were not participating in sport at the same rate as men. In order to make sense of this unsettling trend, they surveyed women to better understand their attitudes towards exercise.   

A staggering 85% of women said they didn’t want to exercise because they felt people were judging them – for being sweaty, for the unflattering clothes, the lack of makeup and the flushed cheeks.  

Further research showed that 85% of people do in fact judge women exercising – they admire them, they feel that they too should be exercising, they were inspired by them.  So Sport England set about to tell that story in their This Girl Can advertising campaign.

Please watch ‘Sport England – This Girl Can’

The results? With their well crafted story rooted in data they inspired 2.8 million women to be more physically active, which has been attributed to a total estimated economic value of approximately $540 million USD (in combined direct and indirect health benefits).

Did you notice something else about that incredibly impactful advertisement?  That’s right – they didn’t mention a single data reference point or number in the entire ad campaign.  What they did do was use the data to power this incredibly human-centric campaign, with tremendous results.

The human element

In an age of dashboards and self-serve analytics, data-driven storytelling is what will bring a human element to the facts and figures.  How we present the data to our audience directly impacts how they will interpret  the message.  Be true to what the data is saying and you can’t go wrong.

What story do you want your data to tell? We’d love to help you build your narrative. You can contact us here

Trendline Interactive

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About the Author(s)

Emma Warrillow

Practice Lead, Analytics at Trendline Interactive and former President of Data Insight Group (DiG), which was recently acquired by Trendline. Emma's has over 25 years experience helping organizations with the strategic use of customer data to drive business results. Her work has spanned a variety of industries in B2C and B2B, including those who market to intermediaries (like brokers).

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