"I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one." ~Flannery O'Connor
Someone once told me that I wasn't an interesting read. He was my English professor in college. While his task was to teach me the tactical aspects of writing, he also felt - as my audience - he had the duty to critique the content within my papers to help me reach my full potential. It was a tough thing to hear, but it helped me begin to think from the audience's perspective. It moved me from a place of, "this sounds like something fun to write about," to, "what would appeal to him?" It paid off.
My next paper was based on something he'd said in passing about an event in history many believe never happened. Using my words, I grabbed him by the hand and took him on a journey through the data I'd collected while navigating the paths, structures and remnants of Auschwitz. That paper gifted me an 'A'. As he walked through the aisles passing out grades he told the class that one student managed to do something no other student had ever done before - made him cry. When he handed back my stapled pages he leaned in and said, "That was you. You made me feel what it was like to live through such a horrific time in history. And that, Bree is what will make you interesting to your readers."
It was a great lesson to learn and one that taught me that at the most basic level, knowing why an audience should care is a great place to begin any story. The next challenge for many of us is driving through those roadblocks that keep us stuck in one place.
Below I've highlighted a few areas where stories can hit the wall and leave a storyteller frustrated. They're the top three questions I get asked about how to tell a story with data. I made sure to include a few example for inspiration.
1. Where do I start?
Look at your data - you may be surprised at what stories are waiting within your analytics.
Insurance companies aren't necessarily the sexiest brands out there, but they've managed to create a lot of social buzz. How do they do it? They have access to a plethora of data, for sure, but data only gets you so far. They've also uncovered the secret sauce of mining their data to tell stories that educate while they resonate.
UnitedHealthcare is a great example of one such company. Each of their 30-60 second spots highlights one of those all-important insurance codes while helping us understand how that code relates to our everyday lives. And while I, personally, might never attempt to run and jump into my spouse's arms, I did laugh a little thinking that someone must have tried it at least once.
Mining the data can lead to interesting results and stories worth sharing.
2. How do I highlight a product [or service]?
Lead with story - show the audience how your product improves their life.
I gain inspiration from so many places and one of my favorites is within TV commercials. They're a perfect channel for uncovering how others are sharing stories about products. Commercials like the latest from Paper + Packaging Board.
Now you wouldn't think a commercial for a box could draw tears to someone's eyes, but it did. I should have expected it when their opening line was, "What does it take to stay close to a dad who is oceans away?" It told a story of a boy and a father and how much the boy was missing his dad. While subtle in its execution, the ad shared how paper and packaging "make the distance disappear."
Helping people see how your product (or service) can improve their lives is a solid technique for drawing an audience in. So give that product the supportive role, not the lead.
3. How do I tell a story with data?
Think outside the box - combine your words with images and data visualizations to tell a story.
One of my peers passed an interesting find along just the other day. Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds) on HowMuch.net. The data they used to design the visual story spanned a fifteen year period and came to life through the use of an animated GIF. You can quickly see (through the use of colors and animation) where the unemployment crisis hit the hardest, as well as, how close to 15% unemployment a couple of the states got during that timeframe.
Source: Unemployment Tsunami - HowMuch.net
Charts and graphs are fine when used to share comparisons, but if you want the data to be memorable, think through how you can design the data in a story-esque format. It becomes easy to understand and sharable.
Doing a little homework never hurt any good storyteller - it'll help you understand what resonates in order to create that emotional connection with your audience. And who knows, you might even stumble onto a little inspiration that will help you break through those roadblocks.