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Data Storytelling: Next Chapter in Business Intelligence

by | Jan 20, 2021 | Articles

A lot of attention today is given to data. Many compare it to oil and call data the most valuable resource of the 21st century. It may be so, as information has become important as ever.

However, presenting data and facts by themselves is not the most effective way to change people’s minds. That is why we regularly forget to drink 2 liters of water or watch Netflix until 2 AM despite having to get up early in the morning. We have all the data about healthy eating and sleeping habits, yet we often fail to follow these basic rules.

To tap into a full potential of data, we must learn how to present information in a way that lights up the parts of the brain responsible for emotions. This is where the art of storytelling comes into play. All the data we possess becomes irrelevant if we do not use the foundations of good storytelling.

Benefits of storytelling

Storytelling has been the main form of communication for tens of thousands of years. Long before the development of writing, our ancestors passed information orally. For that reason, the human brain is incredibly well-equipped to receive information in the form of storytelling.

In the past, some business leaders were skeptical about storytelling. They thought the board rooms weren’t for telling stories, they were there to present facts.

However, it is not about one or the other, the key is to do both. For example, compare two ways of delivering information. The first one is factual – the winter temperatures in some parts of Siberia can go down to -50 C. The second is story-based – when walking to school as a kid in -50 C, I tried not to blink, because my frozen eyelashes would stick to each other and I would not be able to see.

Stories can synchronize the teller’s brain with the listeners’ brains. When the human brain hears a compelling story, neurons start firing in the same direction as the teller’s brain. This kind of brain synchronization is known as neural coupling. When this happens, listeners engage with the teller emotionally, which in turn, leads to more empathy.

The listeners’ brain may respond to story events, as if they were happening to the listeners themselves. In other words, stories light up the brain more than factual reporting. That is why some people tear up after watching a good movie.

When an engaging story captures our emotions, the brain produces oxytocin, a chemical that increases compassion, generosity, and trustworthiness. Dr. Paul Zak, one of the first academics to integrate neuroscience and economics, showed that after emotionally impactful stories people are far more likely to donate to a cause than when presented by mere facts.

Need for more data storytelling

With this knowledge, leaders should use storytelling in analytics and business intelligence. The essential part of success will be to help people discover and understand insights, inspire them to act and make better decisions. Most of us understand spreadsheets and numbers, but to effectively communicate insights, unite people from different teams and countries, and motivate everyone to follow a company’s goals, leaders must use data and storytelling. It is not one or the other, but together and that is the key.

We live in the day and age of incredible transformations happening in all aspects of our lives. Last year was tough for many. To survive, businesses had to go through drastic changes. To successfully convey the messages for change, data storytellers can help. At the end of the day, even best digital transformation campaigns and analytics efforts will not tell their own tales. We all know that the numbers do not lie, but they can neither speak for themselves.

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