But what if Aesop had simply written an essay about trying hard? In fact, many important graduation speeches and essays do cover this topic. But can you remember any right now? Probably not.
What the best writers of stories, fables and lessons, from Homer to religious figures to Aesop to Mark Twain, have all realized is that how we deliver information is every bit as important as the information that you are conveying. Their renderings of that information stay with us long after the story is over and make us think, reflect and change our perceptions and behavior. There are even theorists who say the best stories provide us with a guide to how to live our lives – a set of prescriptions and proscriptions embedded in their writing to ensure we achieve our maximum potential.
The power of storytelling is now a key trend in business, as well. This 2014 Harvard Business Review article, for instance, highlights the key components of a story that can effect change. And, as data science has taken center stage in many organizations, many are relearning what they have already known – that dry, mathematical calculations don’t inspire, don’t illuminate and don’t stick. It is the still the story that matters. Edward Tufte was one of the earliest public faces to emphasize the importance of conveying analytics information graphically. Similarly, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic has been a pioneer in this space. Her book, “Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals,” is considered by many a seminal piece.
But, data storytelling is more than an effective visualization. It illuminates. It changes one’s perceptions. It stays with you. It’s…well, like a parable. In the spirit of getting closer to Aesop’s fables, I would like to offer my own set of simple principles that build upon these important works and incorporate the key principles of a boardroom fable.
Make It Personal
Who is the protagonist of your story? Is it the sales rep who can’t contact the customer? Is it the customer who is frustrated with the product? Give that customer life, including a memorable name. Make their frustrations real and make your data support their personal story. Make your data a plea for action.
Leverage Dramatic Irony
Consider a movie in which the viewer knows that there is a cliff just a bit up ahead of the driver of a car, but that the driver does not know this. The driver changes the radio station or looks at the landscape – their ignorance of the situation is what creates tension. This is dramatic irony. You create increased feelings for your protagonist by knowing what they are about to deal with before they do. Your stories should not be confused with joke telling, in which a long story sets up a clever plot twist. Rather, the story should have a feeling of inevitability. The tortoise’s victory was inevitable. The crow was always going to get the cheese from the fox. The tension of watching the protagonist go through the inevitable will keep your audience’s attention.
Executives don’t have the time. These stories should fit into a two-minute window. Most fables fit on a single page. As with most things, the shorter that you want the story to be, the more effort will be required to create it.
Know Your Facts Cold
Although a tight story will keep you on script, be prepared for push-back on things that might be extraneous. Your intimacy with the data will give gravitas to the story and prove that it is a worthy, illustrative example.
The Story Has To Have a Moral
Fables always have memorable morals that make them stick. Make your moral clear and reinforce it with a memorable phrase. Expressing a problem statement without a recommendation is not helpful. In fact, the whole point of your presentation should show how analytics illuminate the proper path. Don’t leave that to the imagination of your audience. And remember to make your moral something that will come back to your audience later when they think about your presentation. If you are recommending a way to avoid stock-outs, perhaps conclude by saying “the pennies you save on inventory are the dollars lost once your customers arrive.” If you are concerned about employee attrition, finish with: “Millennials seem to want independence and a place to grow. Perhaps, their next job will give them these things.”
Aesop gave us a great deal to help us tell a memorable story that works equally well in the analytics space as it does in a child’s nursery. Make sure you are getting through to leadership by ensuring your story is personal, backed up by data and facts, and gets to the point.