Have you ever heard someone mention the importance of storytelling? Over the past few years of my career and during my time as an MBA student, storytelling has been a buzzword to say the least. Why do people keep talking about it? Because storytelling seems to work. It’s proven that people remember stories better than they remember data or other, more linear presentations of information. Stories work because there’s an emotional element. There’s a beginning, middle and end that’s easy to follow and that’s tied to emotion. And we know that people remember things when emotions are involved.
The A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Analytics & Insights was lucky enough to have Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, author of Storytelling with Data, come to campus to teach students how to transform data into stories and how to represent that data most effectively. She explained that many of us are used to building PowerPoint decks that tell a linear story, starting with a business problem, showing relevant data and research methods, and ending with recommendations. I am guilty as charged. But not anymore! Cole shared an example of how, when building a presentation, you can follow the narrative structure we learn in elementary school, a narrative structure that most children’s books follow: plot, rising action, climax, falling action, ending. Following this structure can make presentations more engaging and memorable, two things most presenters strive for.
Within that story structure, Cole taught us how to declutter our data visualizations and focus our audience where we want them. Most of us have been in a meeting or presentation where someone puts a chart on a screen and starts explaining it, but you never hear the explanation because you’re too busy reading and trying to understand the chart. This is not ideal. A chart should have an easy, quick key takeaway so that it adds to the narrative rather than distracting from it. Cole gave us tools to think about what’s necessary in a graph and encouraged us to get rid of anything that’s not adding value. She helped us understand what takes work for our audience to process and encouraged us to do everything we could to minimize that work so that the audience attention is focused on our story. One thing I liked about Cole’s tips is that they were grounded in research and rooted in psychology. She wasn’t telling us what she thought looked pretty, but rather what studies have shown are ways people consume, read and understand data visualizations.
For my career in consumer insights, storytelling is a buzzword that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. It will likely only get more important as the insights industry leans into the translator role with the continued growth of data technology. I look forward to reading Cole’s book and practicing her techniques in my last semester as a student, and in my first role in consumer insights.