Preamble – Why data storytelling?
The ubiquity of information technology has filled organizations with terabytes of business data. Thanks to the rise of data analytics tools, we can now mine and visualize data better than ever before. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [i], “the demand for research analysts is expected to grow 25 percent between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average across all industries.” Many companies have begun including data storytelling as a required skill in analyst job descriptions.[ii] But the sad truth is most people still don’t understand data, even when it’s presented in graphic form – at least not without a little explanation to put the data in the context of something people do understand – stories. [iii]
To convince you of this, I will tell you a story, but first, here’s a data visualization (a graph) that altered the last 50 years of US History.
Can you determine the meaning of this graph, even with the annotations and labels?
Well, here’s the story that goes with the graph, as told by Dan Roam, international best-selling author, creative director, business consultant, and Founder of the Napkin Academy, the world’s first training program on visual thinking and data storytelling.
“…it comes down to this gentleman, a guy named Arthur Laffer…what happened is Arthur Laffer, in September 1974, was sitting at a bar with two guys, talking about economics. On the back of a napkin, Arthur Laffer drew the following picture [shown above]. He said, let me draw you something, and he drew an x-axis and a y-axis. On the vertical axis, he said, imagine this is the percent tax rate that the US government charges. From zero percent [top] to 100% [bottom]. And on the horizontal axis, we’re going to represent the amount of money that the government actually collects from these taxes from zero money [left] to a vast sum of money [right]. Now it stands to reason that if the government is charging 0% tax, it will collect zero dollars [top left], but it also stands to reason, says Dr. Laffer, that if the government charges 100% tax, it’s also going to collect zero money because no one would work [bottom left], so then he drew something that came to be known as the Laffer Curve, that looks like this [draws a curve connecting the top left and bottom left, which curves over to a point in the middle right and then curve back down, like a semi-circle, or sideways parabola]. What he said was, at some point, dropping the tax rate will increase the amount of money collected [labeled as “normal range”]. And the two gentlemen Laffer was with were intrigued by this napkin sketch and asked if they could keep it. Laffer agreed, and they took it back to their boss, who was then President Gerald Ford. It turns out that those two guys Arthur Laffer was sitting with were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, both of whom were chiefs of staff for President Ford…That napkin sketch … became the basis of supply-side economics. It was passed from the Ford administration onto the Reagan administration’s economic team, and the model, dropping the tax rate increases the amount of money, became the economic policy [for the Reagan administration and every Republican administration] up until today.“ [iv]
That’s how powerful data storytelling can be. Notice Laffer’s handwritten notes even say, “the consequences are obvious,” and no doubt they were to him, but the rest of us, including Cheney and Rumsfeld, needed the story to make sense of it.
So, what makes storytelling so powerful?
The Power of Storytelling
Stories are among the most potent things in human civilization. They are the most powerful form of human communication. They are the basis of human identity. They provide meaning. They are the way our brains are optimized to process information and build trust. Narratives form one of the most enduring and influential forces in human society, from cave drawings of Cro-Magnon man to the mission and values of the business we work in, to the values and character of our nations, to the beliefs and faith of our religions. Stories and storytelling are at the core of the human experience.
For thousands of years, societies have taught key principles through storytelling (Brady, 1997; MacDonald, 1998) [v]. In some cultures, without a written language, storytelling was the only way to convey a society’s culture, values, and history (Egan, 1989) [vi]. Great leaders of all types (e.g., religious, political, educational, and military) have used stories as instructional tools in the form of parables, legends, myths, fables, and real-life examples to convey valuable information (Benedict, 1934; Brown & Duguid, 1998; Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995).[vii] [viii]
The Neuroscience of Storytelling: Empathy (Oxytocin), Stress (Cortisol) & Reward (Dopamine)
Storytelling is hard-wired into our brains. Professor Paul Zak, neuroeconomist and researcher in the neurobiology of trust, explains, “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, [we] discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown kindness, motivating cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.” [ix]
In a 2014 article, Zak explained his research, “More recently [we] wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video rather than face-to-face interactions would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others…In subsequent studies, we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. We discovered that to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story can create that tension, then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.” [x]
Harrison Monarth, an executive coach and New York Times best-selling author, explains, “Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine, making us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”[xi] Catherine Cote, Harvard Business School Online, adds, “When multiple areas of the brain are engaged, the hippocampus—which stores short-term memories—is more likely to convert the experience of hearing a story into a long-term memory.”[xii]
Story & Personality Psychology: Human Identity
Storytelling is also central to the formation of our identity. According to Professor Dan P. McAdams, the stories we internally tell ourselves, our “life’s story,” is key to something psychologists call narrative identity.
“Narrative identity refers to an individual’s internalized, evolving, and integrated story of the self. The stories people fashion to make meaning out of their lives serves to situate them within the complex, social ecology of modern adulthood. It is within the realm of narrative identity, therefore, that personality shows its most intricate relations to culture and society (McAdams, 2006; Rosenwald, 1992). Put differently, the stories we construct to make sense of our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, [who we] are, and [who we] might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social context of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large. The self comes to terms with society through narrative identity.” [xiii]
Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, goes further. “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values.” [xiv]
Julie Beck, a senior editor at The Atlantic, adds, “In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story and how she tells it can reflect and shape who she is. A life story does not just say what happened; it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they will become, and for what happens next.” [xv]
Professor McAdams concludes, “Speaking directly to the modern problem of reflexively creating a unified and purposeful configuration of the “Me,” life stories reside at the third level of personality, as internalized integrative narrations of the personal past, present, and future. It is through the psychosocial construction of life stories that modern adults create identity.”[xvi]
Beck sums up the research, “the way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others and—crucially—to themselves, almost always does have a narrative arc. In telling the story of how you became who you are and who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.”[xvii]
Educational Stories: Story as a Teaching Tool
For all these reasons, storytelling is one of our oldest and still most effective teaching tools. “Fictional and nonfictional examples have always been powerful teaching tools. Storytelling as an information medium is heavily used today in education and training of all types.” [xviii]
Volumes of research highlight the benefits of storytelling as part of the educational process. “There is consensus in the literature that storytelling offers a highly natural and powerful means to convey, learn, and retain information. Various educational researchers offer learning theories that support storytelling from several perspectives, including brain-based learning, experiential learning, reflective learning, and transformational learning theories. Several studies are available that underscore the ability of learners to learn, retain and retrieve information when presented in a story format. Furthermore, neuroscience research reports that the human brain is naturally wired to receive and remember every human experience within a structure of a story.” [xix]
Corporate Stories: Stories that Inspire Purpose
But those outside psychological circles might be starting to appreciate how irresistibly powerful storytelling can be in executing business strategy and change. “A strong corporate narrative can be a powerful force. It can differentiate a company from its competitors, attract and inspire others to participate in its vision, and foster long-term loyalty.”[xx] It can provide personal meaning and purpose to individuals in an organization, which is highly correlated with long-term performance. “We know that people are more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services). “ [xxi]
Notable and Quotable:
John Kotter, Author and thought leader in business, leadership, and change.
“Over the years, I have become convinced that we learn best–and change–from hearing stories that strike a chord within us… As I look around me today, I see that too few business leaders grasp the idea that stories can have a profound effect on people. The gestures made (or not made) by leaders can turn into stories that powerfully affect behavior.” This was done deliberately by studying the entire “experience” of learning and collaboration at Deloitte. While many of the ultimate elements may seem simple when I explain them, they all fit together into an integrated, high-value experience designed to excite, engage, and inspire people at Deloitte. This is an example of “experience design,” not “process design.” [xxii]
Leaders who understand this and use this knowledge to help make their organizations great are the ones we admire and wish others would emulate. Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves… The stories that a company broadcasts about itself can also have a powerful impact on customers, shareholders, and employees…The difference can have a real impact. For which company would the brightest engineering graduates from MIT, Cornell, or Stanford want to work? …It is essential that executives ask themselves these questions: What are the stories that define us? “ [xxiii]
The Elements of a Story
A story is a sequence of events – first ‘a’ happened, then ‘b,’ then ‘c.’ Typically, the events are linked by cause and effect and are told in order. A dramatic story involves a tale of confronting conflict or challenge. Tragedies end in disaster. Everything else in victory – overcoming the challenge or conflict. We tend to like happy endings better. [xxiv]
The simplest story structure articulated by Aristotle[xxv] consisted of 3 acts, a beginning (setup), middle (conflict), and end (resolution). The setup establishes characters we care about and a goal they wish to achieve. Conflict sets the challenge the protagonist needs to overcome to achieve their goal. Resolution conveys how the protagonist responds to the conflict and its consequences. Subsequent philosophers such as Horace articulated that a story consisted of 5 acts, though he did not specify the contents of the acts. [xxvi]
In 1863, German playwright and novelist Freytag defined the 5-act dramatic structure in his famous pyramid, which consisted of 1) exposition, 2) rising action, 3) climax, 4) falling action, and 5) resolution; and three crises: the exciting force leading to the rising action, the tragic force leading to the return or falling action, and the final suspense leading to the inevitable conclusion (failure or victory) of the protagonist. [xxvii]
In 1949, Joseph Campbell penned one of the most famous contemporary analyses in his seminal work, “A Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell argued that all mythic narratives are variations of one great story or monomyth, which forms the basis of almost every heroic epic from Odysseus, Moses, and Jesus to King Arthur, Shakespeare, and even Tolkien. He called this archetypal plot “The Hero’s Journey,” which contained ten parts and introduced some archetypal characters such as the ‘hero,’ ‘wizard,’ ‘trickster,’ and ‘shadow (villain)’ among others. [xxviii]
Concerning business, the 3-act story can broadly be considered, Act 1) we have a goal or mission, Act 2) there is a problem preventing us from achieving our goals, and Act 3) ‘x’ is the solution to overcoming our problems, or what we did to achieve our goals.
Dan Roam has applied the hero’s journey to business communications, such that the first three steps represent something like the mini-arc of the sales pitch. 1) articulation of business goals, mission, or purpose, 2) the challenge to be overcome, and 3) a proposed solution. We’re all happy, and the new project begins. This is, in turn, followed by 4) sobering reality when the project becomes more complex than initially imagined. [xxix]
Psychologists and change management pioneers Don Kelly and Daryl Connor might call these last two steps uninformed optimism followed by informed pessimism.[xxx] The heroic turning point comes with step 5) “Audacious Reality” – the plan to overcome the obstacles, followed by 6) encouraging first signs, 7) commitment to overcome, 8) victory, and 9) spoils. Thus, completing the narrative through execution. [xxxi]
Such stories form the basis of corporate myths and legends that reinforce corporate missions and values. Many of these centered on company founders or leaders in times of crisis.
What has all this to do with data storytelling? Data storytelling aims to find the conflict in the data, then weave the rising actions before and falling actions after. The conflict in data may reveal something unusual or interesting. The rising action, therefore, articulates why the data insight is so unique or exciting. “We’ve always thought x, but the data reveals a different story.” The falling action follows logically. “So, if we want to achieve our goal, we must act differently and change or amend course.”
For all the reasons highlighted above (social-cultural, neurological, psychological, etc.), storytelling is a powerful lever to be used in the communication of data and the art of persuasion. What bytes are to the digital world, stories are to the human mind. Past all the neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, stories are our basic unit of human understanding. ‘Narrative is simply there like life itself international, trans-historical, and trans-cultural … [ceaselessly substituting] meaning for a straightforward copy of the events recounted.’[xxxii] As Dan Roam summarizes, “Customers don’t buy the products you sell; they buy the stories you tell.”[xxxiii]
About The Author:
Craig Friedman is a Learning Strategy Consultant and contributing author at St. Charles Consulting Group. Craig has been a Learning entrepreneur, executive, and Big 4 human capital consultant for nearly 30 years. He has helped create Enterprise Learning Strategies for two internet startups, five national healthcare firms, and three of the Big 4 professional accounting firms.
Craig brings a unique blend of strategic, analytic, and social skills to solving complex, systemic problems in dynamic, change-oriented environments. He can quickly assess situations, propose and negotiate innovative solutions, and has a proven record of executing plans.
For many years, Craig was also actively involved as a board member, and project lead in several national non-profits focusing on extending access of education to at-risk populations.
Craig holds an M.A. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University, a B.S. in Human Factors Engineering, and a B.A. in English from Tufts University; He also holds 2 U.S. patents for learning program technology and processes and has won half a dozen industry awards. Write to Craig at email@example.com.
 The Napkin itself now sits in the Smithsonian.
 Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology, Human Development, and Social Policy, & Chair of the Psychology Department for Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy
 Sometimes it’s fun to tell the story out of order (flashbacks, foreshadowing, etc.) but the pure story is in order.
 See Appendix 1 for some possible examples of data insights leading to data stories
[i] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Operations Research Analysts Operations Research Analysts: Occupational Outlook Handbook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov)
[ii] Catherine Cote. “Data Storytelling: How to Effectively Tell a Story with Data” Harvard Business School On-Line. Nov. 23, 2021
[iii] Brent Dykes. “Shifting From ‘What’ To ‘Why’: How Data Storytelling Unlocks Your Data’s Full Potential” Forbes Online. July 13, 2021. Shifting From ‘What’ To ‘Why’: How Data Storytelling Unlocks Your Data’s Full Potential (forbes.com)
[iv] The Napkin Sketch That Introduced Supply-Side Economics (Dan Roam), 2009. For a more complete telling watch this 7-minute excerpt from a documentary Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Arthur Laffer on the Dinner Napkin that Changed the Economy. 2014
[v] Brady, M. K. (1997). Ethnic folklore. In T. A. Green (Ed.), Folklore: An encyclopedia of beliefs, customs, tales, music, and art (pp. 237-244). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. MacDonald, M. R. (Ed.). (1999). Traditional storytelling today: An international sourcebook. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn (Chicago, IL). Prof Margaret K Brady is a professor emeritus of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah. Margaret Read MacDonald is a children’s librarian and professional storyteller best known for her books associated with folk tales and the art of storytelling.
[vi] Egan, K. (1989). Teaching as storytelling. An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kieran Egan is a member of the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.
[vii] Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1998). Organizing knowledge. California Management Review 40(3), 90–111. Benedict, R. (1934). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (1998). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. Leonard-Barton, D. (1990). A dual methodology for case studies: Synergistic use of a longitudinal single site with replicated multiple sites. Organizational Science, 1(3), 248–266.
[viii] As cited in Andrews, D.H., Hull T.D., Donahue, J.A., (2009) “Storytelling as an Instructional Method: Definitions and Research Questions” Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. Vol 3. Issue #2, Article #3. Pp. 2. Published online: 10-26-2009 Storytelling as an Instructional Method: Definitions and Research Questions
[xi] Monarth, Harrison; “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool” March 11, 2014. Harvard Business Review. The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool (hbr.org)
[xii] Catherine Cote. “Data Storytelling: How to Effectively Tell a Story with Data” Harvard Business School On-Line. Nov. 23, 2021. Vanessa Boris. “What Makes Storytelling So Effective for Learning?” Harvard Business School Publishing. Dec. 20, 2017.
[xiii] McAdams, D. P. (2008). Personal narratives and the life story. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 242-262). New York: Guilford Press.
[xiv] McAdams, D. P., & Manczak, E. (2015). “Personality and the life story: Volume 4: Personality Processes and Individual Differences.” In M. Mikulincer, & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), APA handbook of personality and social psychology: Volume 4: Personality Processes and Individual Differences (pp. 425-446). American Psychological Association Press.
[xv] Beck, Julie, “Life’s Stories: How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human.” The Atlantic. Aug 10, 2015
[xvi] McAdams, D. P. (1996). “Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons”. Psychological Inquiry, 7, pp. 295-321. Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy. Evanston IL.
[xvii] Beck, Julie, “Life’s Stories: How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human.” The Atlantic. Aug 10, 2015
[xviii] Andrews, D.H., Hull T.D., Donahue, J.A., (2009) “Storytelling as an Instructional Method: Definitions and Research Questions” Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. Vol 3. Issue #2, Article #3. Pp. 2. Published online: 10-26-2009
[xix] Eck, Jill; A Research Paper Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Master of Science Degree Career and Technical Education. The Graduate School, University of Wisconsin-Stout. May 2006. Menomonie, WI
[xx] Hagel, John; “Crafting Corporate Narratives: Zoom Out, Zoom In” Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2017
[xxii] Kotter, John; “The Power of Stories” Forbes. April 2006
[xxiii] Kotter, John; “The Power of Stories” Forbes. April 2006
[xxiv] Monarth, Harrison; “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool” March 11, 2014. Harvard Business Review. The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool (hbr.org)
[xxv] Aristotle, Poetics, circa 4th century BC
[xxvi] Horace, Ars Poetica, circa 19 BC
[xxvii] Gustav, Die Technik des Dramas, 1863
[xxviii] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a thousand Faces, Pantheon Books. 1949 (1st Ed.), 1968 (2nd ed.), 2008 (3rd ed.)
[xxx] Don Kelley and Daryl Conner. “The Emotional Cycle of Change” 1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators. Pfeiffer; 8th edition (January 1, 1979)
[xxxii] R. Barthes. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” in The Semiotic Challenge, pp. 95–135. New York, NY: Hill and Wang. (1988)