People love stories. It’s the way our brains are wired. That’s why anecdotes are such powerful tools of persuasion.
If I tell you a story about a friend who got mugged a few years ago in a big city, all the statistics in the world about how crime rates are falling probably won’t convince you it’s safe.
Personal experience matters more to our brains than numbers.
Data is about facts, not stories, and that often makes it seem boring (and, ironically, unconvincing). Our brains just aren’t very good at handling large amounts of data to evaluate things like risk. They need a narrative to hold all the pieces together.
If you want your data to be convincing, you have to let it tell a story. Of course, it’s important that the data guides the story and not the other way around.
But if you want the numbers to stick, you have to weave them into a framework that will anchor all the pieces together and make them persuasive.
Here are five places to start when you’re looking for the story in your data (examples from this post on creativebloq).
Make a Comparison
Isolated data is boring—it’s comparisons that tell the story. Are sales up compared to last month? Are there spiders on planet earth than people? Put the comparison front-and-center if you want it to stand out, whether you’re preparing a slide deck, a presentation, or an infographic.
Comparisons also help people engage because most people already have an opinion. Setting up a comparison brings peoples’ existing opinions into play and invites them to take a position and then see if it’s backed up by the data.
Data is beginning to answer questions we never even used to ask. Questions are a natural hook for people’s attention and feed into existing stories by offering additional information.
Think about all the questions wearables have started making people ask. What is my heartrate when I’m running rather than sitting? How many steps am I taking each day?
Encourage questioning before you get to the answer, and explain why the question matters if it’s one people may not have considered before.
Pique their curiosity before explaining the answer, because once you’ve got people thinking and wondering, the data will start to make sense before you’ve even presented a single number.
Don’t make viewers hunt for your point. Conclusions should emerge naturally from the data, but they should also be clearly present. Data is only as useful as the conclusions we draw from it.
You don’t have to hit your audience over the head with it, but if the data strongly lends itself to a point of view (our current policy isn’t working; there’s a big opportunity emerging in a new sector; we are headed for catastrophe), say it!
Track the History
Showing changes over time can be a powerful way to organize your data and allow for breakthrough insights. It puts information in context and tells a linear story, the same way we experience everyday life.
It’s an easy narrative structure for people to grasp.
Find the Missing Piece (or Bring the Pieces Together)
If your data fills a gap in existing knowledge, it’s like putting the last puzzle piece in place—a very satisfying feeling. Set the stage with the existing data, and then show the missing component.
Explain why that piece of information was so difficult to obtain. Alternatively, for complicated topics, break them down into easily-digestible pieces that bring individual pieces into a cohesive whole.
Whatever your data, finding engaging ways to turn it into a story will make it more memorable, easily digestible, and even more convincing.