Mastering the art of data storytelling

N°308a – Synopsis (8p.) – Mobilization
Mastering the art of data storytelling
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Numerical data is at the heart of corporate life. But it doesn’t always have the expected impact, as our brains struggle to fully understand it. How can we present our numbers in a way that makes them more engaging?

Numerical data is at the heart of corporate life. Whether to gain approval for a strategic project, to laud the performances of a new product, or to mobilize a team, we generally seek to rely on quantitative data—first to conduct a rigorous analysis, then to support our arguments.

And yet, despite the seriousness with which a case or speech has been prepared, our key figures are not always as compelling as we had hoped they would be. A source of incomprehension, or even of frustration: “But the numbers speak for themselves! It takes some real bad faith to not see the reality!”

However, the good will of the audience is not in question. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology studies show that numbers do not actually “speak” to us all that much. Our brains struggle to assess them, to visualize them, to memorize them… and most of all to give them meaning. A raw number therefore has little chance of triggering a reaction. On the contrary, it needs to be put on stage and in narrative. One law school professor quoted in Making Numbers Count tested two options to motivate his first-year students: presenting a striking statistic (“One third of students fail their first year”) or introducing the number in anecdotal form (“Look at the person to your right, then look at the person to your left. Next year, one of the three of you will be gone”). This experiment showed that the second approach had considerably more effect.

This professor used the fundamentals of a skill that has become essential to exercising leadership, i. e. data storytelling. In the age of Big Data and of digital everything, the ability to translate data for diverse audiences, to give it meaning through a narrative, is now crucial to convincing and mobilizing.

In this synopsis:
– To make numbers speak, be selective
– Three conditions to making numerical data a trigger for change
– Putting your numbers into a story

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