Every narrative’s powerful friend
The story that’s retold is the story that goes far
For all the talk in the data industry about “data stories,” almost none of it is about the force multiplier: when people repeat your narrative.
We’re awash in stories, or narratives, whatever you want to call them. Very few get repeated. But the ones that do finally escape data’s orbit and acquire real status. They’re suddenly part of life.
Imagine a speaker’s narrative: “We had noticed that…And so we needed data…Six weeks later, they showed it to us…We realized....We talked about it…We decided…And so that’s why…” No matter what data she’s got, no matter what question led to it or what questions it answered, it has potential to be retold — even to be a hit, retold afterward over coffee, retold in later meetings, retold and retold again.
How to create that propagating beast is the topic of a relatively new book I’ve been reading: Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derrick Thompson.
How to hoist a story to those heights is difficult. Thompson himself cautions that there’s no formula, but he does list a few variables to watch.
1. Familiarity with a surprise. People like things that are familiar. They like tunes that are recognizable, faces they know or look like others they know, food that tastes like food they know.
But what they like most of all is familiarity with a little twist, a slight variation. Thompson writes, “A hit is new wine in old oak, or a stranger who feels like a friend — a familiar surprise.”
2. Tension and release. People respond to things that are “new, challenging, or surprising that open a door into comfort, meaning, or familiarity. It’s called an aesthetic aha.” That's how data stories can work: The data is like the too-obscure Picasso painting; people don't know what it means. But when it's explained a little bit, perhaps with his intention, then the painting gives an aha moment. Suddenly, it goes from "WTF?" to "Aha!" Audiences like even the anticipation of that resolution.
3. Strategic propagation. For this, I prefer Seth Godin’s strategy: Forget the mass audience. Instead, identify just a few dozen people who’re likely to retell the story as an expression of their identity. They’ll repeat your narrative with passion to people they think will like it, and on and on it goes. (This Is Marketing, Seth Godin; 2018)
I admit, this summary is sketchy. Read the books.