Three Things All Great Storytellers Know

Ever wondered why your leadership team decided to proceed in a direction that’s completely counter to the research you just presented? Your data may present the facts, but you need a clear data story to influence action.
Descriptive Image - Three Gears in Head

In all of my years working in research and analysis, the most frustrating part is watching great data go nowhere. Data should be a driver of decisions and action. Otherwise, why bother collecting it?

It never fails—whenever I tell an audience “visualization isn’t storytelling,” I’m met with looks of surprise and doubt. But then I explain the role each plays in connecting with decision makers, and I can almost hear the click as everything falls into place. That’s when I know a data storyteller is born.

The most effective way to make an impact with data is to structure it like a story. Think about it: Since pretty much the dawn of time, important lessons and wisdom have been passed down through generations by telling fables, fairy tales and more. Aristotle recognized its power more than 2,000 years ago when he wrote his notes on Rhetoric and Poetry!

The same theory can be applied to business. I’ve been working with organizations to optimize their data analysis and turn it into effective stories for decades. While the structure of a story is at the heart of breaking through with data, it becomes a truly powerful tool when it’s paired with the art of the storyteller. It’s not a secret art, though. We can all learn what great data storytellers are doing when they engage, connect and inspire their audiences.

Stories are about the audience

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. They take the time when planning their stories to understand why this message needs to be heard by that audience, and what the hot buttons are—the things that will help get a recommendation in motion, and those that may throw up barriers and slow things down.

I talk about these as Audience Truths, and they include business priorities, personal expectations and opinions, and spheres of influence. The way in which a story will resonate with an audience might be entirely different depending on its composition. For instance, the priorities and motivations of a board of directors will likely differ from members of a marketing department. Connecting with the audience is the ultimate goal of the storyteller. It’s worth the investment to dig a little deeper into the audience to get there.

Stories are outcome driven

Have you ever left a presentation wondering why other team members seemed to have taken away different things than you did? One of the most common reasons for this is a lack of clear direction to the story from the beginning, on the part of the storyteller.

Great storytellers start creating their stories with two questions: 1) What do I want the audience to know or do at the end of my material? and 2) What must I share with them in order to create that action? (For those who have attended a Storylytics strategic storytelling workshop, this is the Controlling Idea.)

Why do these questions matter? Because even the most dedicated among us become unanchored without having a clear ending point or outcome in mind.

When the storyteller knows where they’re heading, the goal of the story becomes moving the audience to the ending point. Without an outcome in mind, the audience will take your data and draw their own conclusions and choose their next steps. The more creative or disruptive your data, the higher the risk those conclusions will not align to what you intended.

Confidence is built through relevance

Many in the research and analysis fields cringe at the idea of persuasion or “selling our findings.” I’m not a fan either, to be honest, but strictly because these phrases have come to carry an unfairly negative tone. But if we consider that we’re looking to data for a reason–to make an enlightened, informed decision–the role of persuasion in data storytelling becomes clearer. Great storytellers create confidence in their solutions through the use of relevant data in support of their planned outcome.

But that doesn’t mean it’s inauthentic. Data storytellers stay true to the data and its impact on the business. We can “sell” our findings in a meaningful way by linking them to logical and relevant evidence that connects with and inspires the audience.

Great storytellers are rarely, if ever, accused of data dumps. They make a distinction between what is relevant to the story and what is interesting but off-topic. They follow the data, demonstrating how the data has helped answer the question at hand and supports the recommended action. It’s insightful, and it’s impactful.

Data stories connect the dots between insights, implications and actions. The best storytellers take their audience on a purposeful journey through the data in a way that provides a clear picture of what’s possible when they take action. In fact, data stories told well end up taking on a life of their own. Because when you can effectively persuade your audience why they should act, then they can articulate what can and will be different if they execute your recommendations. And what’s more rewarding than that?


“With any training the true benefit and value can only be measured after the session has been completed and people have an opportunity to put what they learned into practice. Laura collaborated with us to develop and facilitate a training session for our marketing team, focused on using storytelling to “make a better impact with data”. My team and I have effectively leveraged the approaches taught by Laura. As a result of what we learned, we are becoming more effective in our ability to influence business direction and our drive for results.”

–VP Insights Strategy, CPG


If you’re wondering how to elevate the impact of your stories, or want to explore how to build these skills with your team, let’s talk. Drop me an email at

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