Is data without stories really an option?
We can only hope that serious stories have an underpinning of good data
My rant two weeks ago about storytelling having “gone off the rails” brought a comment on Linkedin. The comment began, “I have mixed feelings [about] ‘storytelling’ …” So do I.
The comment went on, “[It] can quickly morph into ‘make it tell this story!’ It shouldn’t, but it can easily go that way. Noise is often the story….” Yes, it is. I too have mixed feelings about the term “storytelling.” The word has some bad connotations, and I wish I had a good alternative. Fortunately, it doesn’t need a label. It’s with us all the time, in every exchange, no matter what we call it.
Storytelling does indeed have a double edge, such as its seductive lure into noise. But many in the data industry fret over that as if it were a ruinous flaw. Nowhere else do we shy from double edges — such as with fire, electricity, nuclear energy, food, drugs, sex, travel, and mindless entertainment, and so many other things. Take fire, for one. No one says, “It’s cold in here, but an out of control fire could burn the house down. Let’s be cold.”
Unlike fire, storytelling doesn’t even give you the option to avoid it. When you tell a story with data, you tell a story that can be told even without the data. It’s just better with the data than without it.
Data analysis begins with questions implicit in a story. To use a simple example, imagine this: “It rained! How much rain fell?” So you go collect the data and react. “Thirty inches! That was a whole season’s worth. We’d better get ready for floods.” The alternative, a story with no data at all, is a weak story — but one that’s still prone to force storytelling errors.
Some people in the data industry seem to believe that speaking to the data-shy is an option. Better to speak in data, only data, like a priest who insists on speaking to the laity in Latin instead of everyday speech lest the sermon loses authority.
Stories have always been told, always will be told, and will continue to use every medium, on every topic, and in every imaginable genre. So let’s get used to it. We can only hope that the serious stories will have an underpinning of good data.