Depending on whom you ask, data storytelling is either another gimmick or it’s real and potent. I wanted to see what someone thought who had proven his ability to see over the data industry’s usual boundaries. I turned to forward-thinking industry expert Scott Davis — who in validating storytelling, broke open an industry icon.
“I’m going to give you a cliché that’s repeated so often it’s taken as truth, and I’m going to tell you it’s straight up false,” he said. “Information is not derivative of data.” That is, data derives from information and the stories that transmit it.
He’s obviously correct. Were we mere dumb beasts before we had computers to process data? Of course not, but the business intelligence industry regards data as having something close to a virginal birth.
It’s the kind of observation I expect from Davis. It helps explain why a lot of smart industry “thought leaders” I know sit up and listen when he speaks. He was first with trust-based, collaboration-based data processing on the desktop, long before anyone else. He’s the CEO of Lyzasoft and president of the highly successful software development company based in Denver, Eyeris. He’s been studying and pondering collaboration and storytelling for years.
“The data we see today,” he said, “exists because someone told a story about a business process that needed to be monitored in a particular way.”
Data is born out of observations and stories: We might say that business is good because we held a sale. Or we might attribute our product’s rising popularity to approval on Twitter. Or we might explain a surge in umbrella sales with a forecast of rain. To test our theory, as we would in any scientific quest, we collect data: Exactly how good is business? Exactly how did today’s customers hear about us? How many umbrellas?
But in many organizations today, what Davis calls “the chain of why” stops at the department door. “Take a Tom Clancy novel,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a Tom Clancy novel with 25 chapters where the character never leaves the engine room of the battleship. Who wants to read about that?”
“Tales from the Engine Room” would have no credibility at all, yet it’s the kind of incomplete chain that results from a narrow view. “Is the department running efficiently? Is it effective? The answer is almost universally yes,’” he said, “but that’s the wrong question.”
The correct questions, he said, follow the chain of why no matter where it goes. A real story integrates. “It’s about multiple players with multiple interests and the interconnectedness among them and causality. You begin to see the whole picture.”
Not surprisingly, stories are widely used among executives. “They all live by storytelling. All of them,” he said. “When they’re communicating goals and objectives and strategies, it’s all via storytelling. We have competitors on the battlefield of our industry.’ It’s a story. We’re going to fight hard for every customer.’ It’s a story. Are you really going to fight and hit the other CEO in the nose? No, not really. It’s figurative, it helps to bridge some gaps and absent facts.”
Executives use it, it’s integrative, it has many benefits. Will it spread down the organizational hierarchy?
A few software vendors are trying, and it’s already become a marketing gimmick. The “story” sticker has proliferated, in many cases where it doesn’t belong. No one can blame some people for scoffing at it all.
Davis himself is not so optimistic about supporting storytelling with software. It’s hard to develop for, he said. Also, most apps are about data first, story second while storytelling is about story first, data second. He said, “That’s a fundamental problem.”
“Storytelling is a behavior model,” he explains, “a thought process, a communication crutch.”
But getting just a few more users to adopt storytelling would be worthwhile. He adds, “I think anyone with any more grandiose plans is just smoking something or selling something.”
Davis won’t make predictions, but we can see a few scenarios. In the short run, storytelling will ride along on marketing buzz until it dulls from overuse and abuse.
It’s possible, though, that data storytelling’s clear benefits — understanding, memorability, and people’s tendency to retell stories — will win new users even as the buzz fades. Davis likes to point out that buzz doesn’t necessarily correlate with practice. You rarely see articles about cost-based accounting, for example, yet it remains popular.
The data-story movement could strengthen as it enters a confluence with traditional story forms like text and film. Data storytellers would learn to accommodate the data’s requirements while they borrow ancient techniques.
Storytelling’s brightest future, in fact, may come as a new discipline — on a path somewhere between today’s tech-obsessed data industry and the relatively more human-centric data journalism. We’ll see.
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