How to Include Data in Your Business Stories

What do you do when you absolutely must include data with your business story? Recognize that both need context. Context is more than background information. It also answers the question, “What does this mean?” The purpose of data is to inform people. You have the job of interpreting it and telling your audience about the data’s impact — creating meaning from it.

Sit quietly with the data. Continually ask, “What’s this data trying to tell me/us?” Here are other ways of asking this question:

  • What do people really need to get out of this data? Think of yourself as a tour guide. Share the who, what, where, when, and why surrounding the data and its collection. How can you make it simple to understand?

  • Why is it so important that I show this data to others? Show what’s unique about the data. What can they not do if they don’t hear this? Or what do they need to stop doing?

  • What’s the topic of the data really about? This isn’t always easy to determine. It’s not always about the surface information that the data relay. You need to dig deeper.

  • What one piece of data will make someone’s eyes pop open? Did something unexpectedly surprise you? Did the data change over time?

  • What comparisons, trends, patterns, and relationships define the data? Think about how you can best display and communicate these. Bring connections to life for people.

  • What do I think the reader should get out of this? List all the messages that the data communicates that are important to relay.

  • What’s the number one reason you are showing this data? Go through the messages you’ve already noted and figure out which is most critical to relay to get people to take a specific action.

Now that you have a better sense of what to communicate, here are some pointers to follow to take a deeper dive into creating a story from these data:

  • Find the face behind the data. That human face is the main character of your story. It humanizes everything. Tell that person’s story and then relate the data to it. Find and weave together little data points of human behavior into a compelling narrative.

  • Find the dilemma that you want your data to illustrate or inform. What’s the problem or conflict your data raises about the human face behind the data?

  • There’s no need to include all the data. Determine what’s most important to achieving the outcome you’re going after.

  • Decide on a story structure that helps organize the data and relay the story it tells. At the very least, make sure your data is presented with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Consider these concrete ways to tell a story with data:

    • The Deductive Argument Wrapped in A Story Approach: Set the context first. Tell your audience the dilemma (problem or conflict) and then run deductively through the steps.

      Deductively means: To do X, you have to take steps A, then B, then C, then D, and then E to reach the conclusion, F. If you take those steps, you’ll work through the challenges and resolve the situation.

    • The Butler Did It Approach: The book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, 2009) uses this technique. When discussing the drop in the U.S. crime rate since the 1970s, the authors set up the beginning of the story with the context, characters, and problem. Then they go through the data.

      Instead of giving a chart explaining the number one reason for the drop in crime rates, they pose seven other possible reasons. Could it be this one? Could it be the next one? Maybe it’s this reason. They present the final accurate reason as the last option, deliver their interpretation, and then provide the key message.

    • Set Your Story as a Map Approach. Think of the data as presenting a journey in visual format across space and time. You can craft a map to tell a story about a journey a character takes. Decide on your key message and action steps and then work through your data or research to display it as a map that helps you deliver the story.

In addition to the key message — the action you want your audience to take after hearing the story — make sure readers or the audience also receive a takeaway about the data or research. Craft it as an a-ha moment (a new piece of knowledge) in the story.

Create frames for the data

Language always comes with what’s called framing. Framing helps people communicate about reality. Framing focuses people’s attention, helps them make sense of the world, and provides a quick and easy way to process information so that it’s personally meaningful.

One frame you can add to your story telling is This is a secret. Why? Scarcity is a tool of influence, and secrets are a form of scarcity: “I know something you don’t know and I trust you with it.” The research truly is a very special piece of research — not a boring project or a common tip.

This frame captures people’s attention and connects to an age-old mythological quest for the secrets of a successful life.

There are two additional ways to frame data:

Leverage metaphors

The best type of framing to use when sharing data is to find a metaphor. The metaphor you select needs to reflect how you want your audience to think about the data or the facts you’re presenting to them.

Use simple contrast

Using contrast — comparing things to highlight differences — is another great way to frame data. A very effective technique for using contrast when presenting information is going back and forth between painting a picture of the present-day problem and envisioning a desirable future. This not only builds urgency, but also the desire to take action.

The same technique can help you when presenting your data. Contrast the desirable against the undesirable scenarios or expose the difference between present-day data and future opportunities that the information might be indicating. You can also use before-and-after pictures. Make sure your visuals show a contrasting shift from one situation to another.

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