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From nation to nation and through century to century, one thing humankind has always had in common is its ability to tell – and be enraptured by – stories. From the hieroglyphics found on the wall of the tomb of Tutankhamun or the Oscar-winning best picture Moonlight, we evolved the power of storytelling to not only entertain, but, crucially, to share our experiences and our learnings. But, while storytelling is something we all do, doing it well is truly an art form – and a skill that needs to be grown and nurtured.
As we move into a world where data reigns, data storytelling will become an important skill for everyone to master. Effective data storytellers can take information around a subject and bring it to life in an easy-to-understand manner. Take sports commentators for instance – while you’re watching the game, they can naturally use a host of data sets from previous matches and relay them to you in a way that puts the situation at hand into context, building stories and narratives around big game moments or players. Or what about game creators, taking reams of data and using it to create stories that let you embody a console character? Data storytelling is a skill we see all the time, we just don’t readily relate it to the data storytelling that’s necessary in a business context – and so enough isn’t happening in a business sense.
Yet, anyone within a business tasked with any form of decision making, reporting or data analysis, should be starting to look at themselves as storytellers – harnessing the skill of showcasing what was, what is – and, most importantly, especially when growing an organisation, what could be. So many companies still seem to see data storytelling as a skill restricted to dedicated data practitioners. In fact, recent research we conducted with BARC and Cognizant showed data storytelling is only used by 23% of line of business managers and 12% line of business users. Instead, the method is still predominantly being used by those within management or finance & controlling roles.
But the best storytellers are always those closest to the subject and that means storytelling shouldn’t be restricted to one team or department – the skills to be a data storyteller are ones that should be encouraged and valued from anyone within a business and at all levels, whether within management, finance, HR or marketing – natural data storytellers aren’t always the numbers people. In fact, it can be more beneficial for an organisation if they aren’t. Too often, big data or data analysis projects fail because they lead to data being hoarded without a clear purpose and that’s because the right people aren’t being given the right tools to access it. Instead, if all employees are encouraged to become storytellers with their data, then they can achieve so much more – after all they are the people who know the messaging, the audience and the storyline that’s going to lead them to an interesting finding.
So staff need empowering to be data storytellers - and that’s going to require them having access to the right tools in order to tell their stories. Our research showed that even those staff who are making use of data storytelling already are typically still relying on Excel and PowerPoint to do so - even though stories, to be truly listened to, need to be descriptive, visual and interactive. To truly create a business of data storytellers, business leaders need to embrace the tools to help them with their craft - share the right stories and right insights with the right people.
Ultimately, we’re moving into a world where the storytelling that has prevailed throughout our lives needs to seep through into the way we’re interacting with and analysing data in a business sense - but that means making anyone from any part of the business a data storyteller. After all, the storyteller needs to know the story inside out if it’s really going to resonate with their audience and effect change.