The Inflated Role of Storytelling

People increasingly claim that the best and perhaps only way to convince someone of something involves telling them a story. In his new book Ruined By Design—a book that I largely agree with and fully appreciate—designer Mike Monteiro says that “If you’re not persuading people, you’re not telling a good enough story.” Furthermore, “…while you should absolutely include the data in your approach, recognize that when you get to the point where you’re trying to persuade someone…, you need a story.” Really? Where’s the evidence for this claim? On what empirical research is it based? And what the hell is a story, anyway? Can you only persuade people by constructing a narrative—a presentation that has a beginning, middle, and end, with characters and plot, tension and resolution? In truth, stories are only one of several ways that we can persuade. In some cases, a simple photograph might do the trick. A gesture, such as a look of anger or a raised fist, sometimes works. A single sentence or a chart might do the job. Even a straightforward, unembellished presentation of the facts will sometimes work. The notion that stories are needed to convince people is itself a story—a myth—nothing more.

It reminds me of the silly notion that people only use 10% of their brains, which someone fabricated long ago from thin air and others have since quoted without ever checking the facts. This notion is absurd. If we used only 10% of our brains, the other 90% would wither and die. Stories are not the exclusive path to persuasion. Not everyone can be convinced in the same way and most people can be convinced in various ways, depending on the circumstances. While potentially powerful and useful, the role of stories is overblown.

One of the common errors that people sometimes make when promoting the power of stories is the notion that stories work because they appeal to emotions. For example, Monteiro wrote that “…people don’t make decisions based on data; they make them based on feelings.” This is the foundation for his rationale that stories are the only path to persuasion. Stories can certainly appeal to emotions, but stories can also present facts without any emotional content whatsoever. We all, no matter how rational, are subject to emotion, but not exclusively so. Stories structure information in narrative form and those narratives can appeal to emotions, to the rational mind, or both. In other words, saying that stories are powerful is not the same as saying that appeals to people’s feelings are powerful.

Don’t get me wrong, stories are great; they’re just not the panacea that many people now claim. The current emphasis on storytelling is a fad. In time, it will fade. In time, some of the people who promote stories to the exclusion of other forms of communication will look back with embarrassment. No matter what they claim, no one actually believes that only stories can convince people. No one exclusively uses stories to persuade. We all use multiple means and that’s as it should be. The sooner we get over this nonsense that only stories can persuade, the sooner we can get on to the real task of presenting truths that matter in all the ways that work.

12 Comments on “The Inflated Role of Storytelling”


By Kat Greenbrook. July 15th, 2019 at 12:52 am

Hi Stephen,

I don’t think there’s much debate about how effective stories can be at persuading (and you acknowledge this)… I think it’s more a question of how we now define a data story. Not all data narratives have a beginning, middle, and end – in the traditional sense. And not all stories need to be emotive.

But not all stories need to be written in order to communicate. Yes, a photograph can be persuasive, but is this because the creator is leaving it up to the audience to write their own story? The same can be said for a graph. Maybe the story is so obvious, it doesn’t need to be said aloud. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though.

I think this modern discipline is new (and evolving) and requires more discussion about what it actually is, rather than jumping ahead to label the current emphasis on it a fad.

Love your work.

Kat

By Stephen Few. July 15th, 2019 at 3:21 am

Hello Kat,

What is a story? You’ve acknowledged that we must discuss what a story is, but you haven’t actually done that. When you say that you’re a “data storyteller,” as you do on your website, what does that mean? You’ve mentioned a few of things that a story is not, but not what a story is. The first step in advocating the importance of stories is to define what you mean by the term.

By mw. July 15th, 2019 at 4:51 am

YES. I have been marveling for the last five years at the fad for “stories” in dataviz (scare quotes to indicate my teenage eyeroll). And I’m the last person who would ordinarily be anti-story — I have a PhD in literature and regularly teach narrative theory.

My definition of story, which may be different from yours: multiple elements arranged linearly. In other words, a story can’t be a single point. And some data ARE a single point. Creators are not responsible for the stories that any particular user creates around a datum. And if every object — say, a q-tip — becomes a story just because a four-year-old drew eyes on the q-tip and imagined adventures for it, then the word “story” is meaningless.

By Stephen Few. July 15th, 2019 at 9:23 am

Hello mw,

I appreciate your attempt to define “data stories” in a way that excludes presentations of single facts. I think that makes sense, but I also think that we should use the term for something more than “multiple elements arranged linearly.” Fortunately, given the fact that I’m not the one who is promoting storytelling as the cure-all for effective communication or as the necessary means of persuasion, I don’t bear responsibility for defining the term. It’s time for those who make bold claims about the role and power of stories to define the term for us.

I should admit that I am partially responsible for this current craze. I was one of the first people to talk about telling stories with data, many years before Cole Nussbaumer-Knaflic wrote her popular book Storytelling with Data. In fact, on many occasions I gave talks titled “Telling Compelling Stories with Numbers.” In the beginning, I was being sloppy. At the time, I merely used the term story as a sexy synonym for a well-designed presentation of facts. Nine years ago, however, as more and more people began to use the term and a few began to talk about data storytelling as a panacea without actually defining what they meant, I grew concerned and mended my ways somewhat. At that time, I developed a talk titled “Statistical Narrative” that attempted to treat data storytelling specifically as a narrative approach to data presentation. The “Statistical Narrative” talk included the following statements:

We’re buried in data–overwhelmed–not because there’s too much but because we haven’t learned how to weave into something meaningful. We need to find ways to discover the stories that live in our data and then learn to tell those stories in meaningful and compelling ways to others.

We humans are natural born storytellers. We’ve been creating and preserving culture through stories since we learned to speak. Stories invite us into the action. They do this by placing information “into a framework that is more lifelike, more true to our day-to-day existence.” (Made to Stick, Heath and Heath, p. 214) If I begin with the words, “Once upon a midnight dreary…”, you can’t help but imagine the scene: dark, foggy, and cold; a shiver walking up your spine.

Stories help us imagine the situation from the inside, as one of the characters. They work as simulations, allowing us to run through the steps as if we were actually involved. “Mental simulation helps us with problem-solving. Even in mundane planning situations, mentally simulating an event helps us think of things that we might otherwise have neglected.” (Heath and Heath, p. 213) Will the guy get the girl? Will we find out who the murderer is? Will we figure out how to retain our customers? No matter what the question is, a story begins with a question and takes us on a journey in pursuit of the answer.

In that talk, I went on to illustrate what I meant by telling a story about cancer, which included a sequence of several slides worth of facts about this dreaded disease, ending in a call to action to support cancer research. Since then, I’ve been more circumspect in my use of the terms “story” and “storytelling.”

By Dan Zvinca. July 17th, 2019 at 1:05 am

In Data Visualization “story” word might be used for many purposes, but the one that I accept as useful is that associated with the description of the context that lead to a certain graphical design. Describing the historical context of data, the used statistical techniques, how to read a less popular form of graph can be all part of the associated story. It can be reduced to a title, a few annotations, a footnote, but it can be more. To write the right amount of annotations on (or next to) a chart that are informative and blend well with the graphical encoded quantitative information requires some skills. Eventually, “what’s the story behind that graph?” is often a legitimate question. There are people who choose to anticipate that question and even make a profession from telling how to properly answer to that. Backing up a chart with insightful, related information or writing a proper story for a given audience about chart values are useful things.

By Stephen Few. July 17th, 2019 at 7:30 am

Dan,

What you describe as the story behind a graph can indeed be useful, but I don’t think it’s what most people mean when they advocate the role, power, and importance of stories. So far, three people have responded to my blog with three quite different notions of what a story is. This illustrates the problem nicely. Everyone is talking about stories, but almost no one is clarifying what stories are, certainly not in a way that constitutes an agreed-upon definition. Without a common understanding of the term, talking about stories is meaningless. It’s just hype, similar to the hype about so-called “Big Data,” another popular term that lacks meaning. If we ever agree on a meaningful definition of the term “story,” only then will we be able to discuss the potential role, power, and importance of stories.

By Peter Larsen. July 19th, 2019 at 5:26 am

Kat Greenbrook wrote “ I think this modern discipline is new and evolving“. Should we then be using words like “story” and “storytelling” in an attempt to try and describe how you best communicate using data? These are words that have a long history within literature and filmmaking and are associated with how we want to be entertained. Modern filmmaking is a set of tools put to use to try and capture the audience attention and communicate a message in a way that the audience understands. Filmmakers will even ask their audience for feedback. Not that different from what we would do. So should we even be asking “What is the story?” or is it enough to ask “Have you applied the tools of your trade in a way that your message is clear to your audience?” and not worry about the definition of a word most people find hard to define.

Peter

By Stephen Few. July 19th, 2019 at 7:47 am

It’s ironic that those who tend to talk about stories in the context of data presentation usually intend to teach effective communication practices but are themselves communicating poorly in the process. Telling people that they should be telling stories without clearly explaining what that means is poor communication. Using the term story to mean something that’s disconnected from the traditional meaning of story is confusing. What do children expect when we sit at their bedsides and they look at us with wonder and plead, “Please, tell me a story”? It isn’t what most people in the world of data communication are calling stories these days. Imagine the look of disappointment on a child’s face and the exasperated response, “That’s not a story!” The term “story” can be applied to data presentation in a meaningful way. Doing so, however, involves structuring information in narrative form, with characters and a plot, tension and resolution—a journey. That’s one of many ways to communicate the meanings that we derive from data. It is not the only way and it certainly is not the only effective way. Whether or not a story is appropriate depends on the nature of the information, the audience, the setting, and your communication objectives. Let’s strive to become effective communicators, which will at times include the ability to tell a good story.

By Pierre-Marie. July 30th, 2019 at 1:20 am

I’m preparing a presentation for laymen on Data Visualization, and I’ve reached a similar conclusion that we are not using the traditional children’s definition of “story”.

Initially I was starting that part of the presentation with John Truby’s definition from his amazing book “Anatomy of Story”:
The one-line definition of story: “a speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why”

And when I did a dry run of the presentation with my team, this really fell flat and there clearly was no link with Data Storytelling, so I dug deeper. Here are 2 interesting places you might want to look:

1) Nancy Duarte on Story and Presentations, and their difference in shape (if you love Joseph Campbell, this will be fun): https://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks/transcript?language=en
Basically the core difference is that
-in a story you’re trying to communicate experience (including experience of change or lack thereof)- a full template that the audience can use to ground their own changes.
-whereas in a presentation, you’re directly trying to cause the audience to act in a way which will result in change. There isn’t the same idea of a full template (although a presentation can include a story)
Stories are targeted at the whole person (including his senses and subconscious) and good stories include very little direct preaching/convincing, whereas presentations will typically more directly targeted at the conscious/reasoning part of the audience

2) Just to hammer it in, I’ll quote more directly from John Truby, sorry it’s a bit long but this is the core of his book, so it can help make the differences clearer:

“-the storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments. These moments are so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.
“-good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices, and emotions that led the character to do what he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of knowledge – emotional knowledge – or what used to be known as wisdom, but they do it in a playful, entertaining way.
“-as a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking the listener to figure it out. The author creates this puzzle in two major ways: he tells the audience certain information about a made-up character, and he withholds certain information. Withholding or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.
“-audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both.
“-alls stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.
“-in the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. The ‘story world’ doesn’t boil down to ‘I think therefore I am’ but rather ‘I want, therefore I am’. Desire in all of its facets is what makes the world go around. It is what propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
“-a character pursuing a desire takes actions to get what he wants, and he learns new information about better ways to get it. Whenever he learns new information, he make a decision and changes his course of action.
“-all stories move this way. But some story forms highlight one of the activities over the other. The genres that highlight learning the most are the detective story and the multi-perspective drama.
“-any character who goes after a desire and a is impeded is forced to struggle (otherwise the story is over). And that struggle makes him change. So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur
(John Truby, anatomy of story)

So while at the end here, we’re very far away from data storytelling as we know it, the beginning of what Truby describes is very similar:
“the storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments”

I think this is typically what we have in mind with data storytelling, in particular selecting and connecting. This is simply the job of any editor generally speaking.

Kilian Bazin teaches a Data Viz class at a French school (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_nbwikvdgY), and has a large focus on these concepts:
-The editor’s work: his first example in the talk (https://vincentgarreau.com/dataparis/) is a large set of data on Paris which had existed for a long time but attracted no attention, and suddenly becomes alive when you change the angle/how you look at it. The old angle was splitting data by “arrondissements” (similar in size to NYC’s 59 community districts) , which is too broad to be interesting and the new angle was looking at it by subway station, and I witnessed it myself when I presented it: all of a sudden it’s much more personal and people want to look at the data for their subway station
-Renouncing/Giving up some of the data points in order to focus on the messages: it is better to have 2 graphs with few data points telling 1 message each, rather than 1 busy graph with a lot of data points as support for the 2 messages at once. See 14:33 in Kilian’s presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_nbwikvdgY

By Stephen Few. July 30th, 2019 at 7:50 am

Hello Pierre-Marie,

Thanks for taking the time to contribute to this discussion in a thoughtful manner.

Truby’s definition—”A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why”—is unnecessarily limited. Most stories, defined in any conventional manner, aren’t about what people want. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t want the series of events that transpired. More generally, stories are about what life throws at people and how they deal with those circumstances.

I’m familiar with Duarte’s use of the term story, which is in line with conventional uses. As she defines the term, a story has a beginning, middle, and end and it involves conflict and resolution. Her book Resonate in particular addresses the usefulness of narrative structure. Unlike many people who have popularized the notion of storytelling, Duarte defines the term specifically, meaningfully, and usefully.

What you shared about Bazin’s work seems to underscore the important fact that data visualization is about communication, not necessarily about storytelling. If we’re careful to define the term in a clear, meaningful, and useful manner, stories can play a role in communicating data, but they will forever remain only one of many ways in which information can be presented to get our messages across.

By Stephen Few. August 1st, 2019 at 2:51 pm

When I was a kid, to call someone a “storyteller” was to accuse them of making up lies, or, at a minimum, of exaggerating the truth. It was not a compliment. The other meaning—someone who communicates in narrative fashion—was less common in my experience. Today, it’s hard to know what people mean when they refer to storytelling in the context of data sensemaking (i.e., data analysis) and communication. Nothing about data sensemaking is about storytelling, or it damn well shouldn’t be. If you begin to formulate a story before making sense of the data, you taint the sensemaking process and impose meanings to support your predetermined story. Storytelling can apply to data communication, but only in a small percentage of cases. Mostly, when communicating what we’ve found in data, we present the facts in a straightforward manner. We don’t take time to weave those facts into stories. When our audience wants the facts, they don’t need a story to become engaged or convinced.

By Dale Lehman. August 6th, 2019 at 10:22 am

I’ve given several presentations entitled “Data Storytelling: Start with the Data, not with the Story.” I do not clarify the definition of “story” but my purpose is to illustrate what you have just alluded to. There have been many recent high-profile examples of “research” that is shoddy at best, and where I suspect the story was written (at least the headline was) before the data was analyzed. This is often innocent, but too often not. As you say, data sensemaking is thwarted (if not made impossible) when the story is written first.

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