Three Keystone Habits of Great Data Storytellers

Great data storytelling is a skill, not a talent. Great data storytellers know that facts alone don’t inspire change, and they share a common set of habits that set them up for success every time. Read on to learn more about these practices so you can employ them, too.

If you’re reading this article, you likely already understand stories are a powerful way to share a message (data or otherwise). Our oral histories were built on stories, and important lessons and wisdom have been passed down through generations, through fables, fairy tales and more. We use stories to help us make sense of the world—Aristotle recognized its power more than 2,000 years ago when he wrote his notes on Rhetoric and Poetry.

But stories in the data realm often seem to elude us, with too many “where’s the ‘so what’?” echoing in the void. Yet, when we stand in awe of those for whom data storytelling seems effortless, it is clear a data story carries power and influence, and helps us make sense of the business.

I’ve been working on and with executive teams for more than 20 years, and I can tell you with confidence there is an enormous difference in the conversation when data is shared as a story. Each data storyteller is unique, but they all share three keystone habits:

    • They’re audience-centric.
    • They’re outcome-driven.
    • They own the story.

Audience-centric:  Knowing their audience beyond their accountabilities

Knowing and adapting to an audience goes beyond just knowing that marketing has a different style and set of priorities than sales or finance. To really deliver insights that matter, we need to understand what’s going on the minds of audience members so we can make connections relevant to them.

Great storytellers understand their job is to draw the listener or reader into their tales. To do that well, they know the motivations of their audiences and speak to their needs: what is on their minds, and where they want to go. They explore, directly or indirectly, to understand hot buttons—points of view that are closely held, or barriers that have the potential to slow things down.

I talk about these as discovering Audience Truths. Storytellers recognize their stories are being consumed by people who are three-dimensional, with experiences, opinions and influence, regardless of their level in an organization. To really connect, we must meet them on their terms in order to bring them into the conversation in a meaningful way.

Outcome-driven: Recognizing that they are chasing outcomes, not results

To truly be a data storyteller, you must know that you’re not simply solving problems, you’re helping your audience achieve their outcomes. Results are immediate, while outcomes speak to broader implications and long-term effects.

Audience truths help you to understand the desired outcomes from your audience’s point of view, but then you also need to bring your informed, outcome-driven point of view to the data—not just bring the data for someone else to decide what it means.

Great storytellers start at the end, with a focus on the recommendation(s) they believe need to be implemented. Once they can articulate that end point, they can build the narrative to bring the audience to that end, by establishing the “controlling idea” or the audience’s “need to believe” to buy into the recommendation. They can then take the time to plan their stories around why this message needs to be heard by that audience to achieve their goals.

Own the story: Taking the audience on a journey from opportunity to resolution

Many cringe at the idea of persuasion or “selling our findings” as part of sharing data. While I recognize the challenge, I think it’s a shame that these phrases have come to carry an unfair, negative tone.

When we change our perspective, and realize we are sharing information from a place of expertise (we’re presenting what we know) to help others feel confident making decisions (we legitimately have their best interests at heart), the expectation to own the story becomes more clear.

Data storytellers recognize their data is being used to inform and direct an organization. They become trusted advisors by sharing data stories with intent — stories that deliver on the promise of the controlling idea.

In the delivery of the story, they address what’s on the minds of their audience, share relevant data that will help shift perspectives, guide the audience through the implications (the elusive ‘so what’) towards an action beneficial to the business. When every data point is shared with the intent to show what’s possible tomorrow, the data gains a new relevance and drives the conversation towards action. And what’s more rewarding than that?

These keystone habits are imbedded in everything we do at Storylytics. Reach out today to learn how these skills can become second nature to you and your team.

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