How Data Can Enhance Your Business Storytelling

Highly technical audiences like to know the science behind storytelling before accepting it as a core business practice. Sharing all kinds of data with them may be tempting, but would defeat your purpose of demonstrating how powerful stories can be. It’s not that you don’t want to share data — but you want to do it in a way that reinforces the fact that stories not only create understanding, they also create meaning and knowledge transfer. So you need to take the data and tell the story about it.

Here’s an example — an exercise in storifying an academic research article called “Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication” by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2010).

You can read the article itself. It’s not a perfect story (for example, there’s no character dialogue), but it contains many of the elements needed to turn narrative into a story, something like the following:

It’s been hard for me to explain the power of storytelling in scientific terms to the business world. Only recently has research proven storytelling’s value without a doubt. As you can imagine, this has been quite an issue for a practitioner like me. For years, I’ve been hoping and wishing for scientists to take brain scans of what happens to people when one person is telling a story at the very same time that someone else is listening to the story as it’s being told.
Guess what? A few years ago, my wish came true. Three scientists at Princeton University took brain scans of a storyteller sharing a story. At the very same time they took brain scans of a person listening to that same story. And they did this all in real-time.
For the purpose of our conversation today, let’s say Joe’s the storyteller and Ann is the listener. As Joe was sharing a story, the majority of the areas of his brain lit up. Not just a small part of his brain, but a large part got stimulated by the story. As Ann was listening to the story, the majority of her brain also lit up. This happened really fast for both of them — it took no more than a nanosecond.
Before you draw any conclusions, you need to know that there was one big difference between Joe and Ann’s brain. One additional area of Ann’s brain as the listener got activated. This was the part that anticipated what was coming next. This is one reason why storytelling is so enjoyable to listeners like Ann. Imagine her sitting the edge of her chair, wondering what’s coming next.
What key points do these brain scans bring out? We now know that storytelling makes an immediate and powerful connection between two people. It stimulates the majority of the brain for both tellers and listeners. And we now know that story listeners are indeed engaged. This demonstrates both the complexity and the richness of storytelling as a communication vehicle.
When I first read this article, I said, “Yes! Stories forge connections.” It validated my personal experience of what I’ve seen when stories are shared between people. I suspect it validates your experiences, too. It’s great to know that science is finally able to confirm why storytelling has been our preferred way of communicating for more than 100,000 years.
If this research interests you, I’ve provided the link to the article so you can check it out and confirm how stories connect tellers and listeners —and read the other insights that this article offers. It’s my hope that you too will share with others what you discover.

How can you do that? The following sections contain some tips.

Make it personal

Begin by sharing a personal experience about the information — something that others can relate to. You can share a frustration or a desire you want fulfilled.

Avoid data dumps

Notice the story shared the results of the article — not its statistics or numerical data. Sharing those would’ve made it longer and more complex, possibly losing the audience in the process. Find ways to do the same with your data. That being said, there are times when you do need to share some numbers — such as reporting quarterly bottom line results. If you have to share a lot of numbers, follow the next point.

Make the data small and the story big

Keep the amount of data you share in the right proportion to the story. You can even open with an interesting data point, as long as you spend more time sharing the story about the data right after doing so. Think about delivering your information this way: a piece of your story and then some data, the story of the research with a bit more data, and then ending your story with perhaps another small piece of data that supports the key message, if applicable. In this way, not only have you shared a story, but you’ve added in the most essential facts to help make your point.

Make it easy on your listeners

Interpret the data for listeners. Tell them what it means and why you think it’s important. Sharing your story of the data will help them connect the data to an experience they’ve had. People are hardwired to take data and connect it to one of the stories running around in their heads. They do this so they can understand it and make it meaningful. Don’t make listeners work hard by just presenting the data without also presenting your interpretation.

Figure out your point in sharing the data

The main point about the brain research mentioned earlier is to understand what happens in the brain during storytelling — namely, that stories forge connections. Which makes storytelling a very powerful experience. Note that the story also added an action step at the end, which was an invitation to read the actual article, so that listeners could gain more insight and also share their knowledge about what they learned with others.

Data is like a box of chocolates — it’s best to digest it a little at a time. Find a way to tell the story about what the data personally means to you, why you’re sharing it, what the research indicates, what to do about it, and what the opportunity might be. Then close with an action step or two. Not only will people remember the information you shared and the stories you told, they’ll be able to repeat it and walk away equipped to take action. And in the process, you build up your credibility and cement your reputation.

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