Numbers are great—when the black ones get bigger and the red ones get smaller, it’s always a good thing. And yeah, charts are awesome—arrows pointing up and to the right portend great things in the future, especially when they look like a hockey stick.
But it’s hard to make an emotional connection with facts and figures when you’re seeing them in a presentation. While you can intellectually process what you’re seeing and make connections to higher valuations, revenue gains and growth, it still feels very theoretical.
Politicians have understood this for decades. Leaving the boardroom for a moment and transporting yourself to a political campaign speech or State of the Union address, our elected leaders (and those vying for those jobs) don’t just rattle off statistics touting their accomplishments or cite numeric goals without any additional context.
Instead, they bring a human element into the equation. They talk about Sally, the single mother of two in Kansas who is struggling to make ends meet but will get an extra $400 per month with their new tax plan. Or the immigrant family of entrepreneurs that will benefit from a new small business loan program that will provide them with the funds to expand their operation and create 100 new jobs in Sacramento. Or how the new job retraining program is going to give a West Virginia coal miner new skills to compete in the 21st century economy.
“Stories act like a drug that reliably lulls us into an altered state of consciousness,” says author Jonathan Gottschall of Washington & Jefferson College. “Stories are actually effective in influencing us–in modifying our thinking and behavior.”
That’s the same reason that of the top 500 most popular TED Talks, 65% of the content is people telling stories and not just regurgitating facts and figures. That’s because people remember stories 63% of the time, while a single data point is fleeting and only recalled a scant 5% after the fact.
There are plenty of reasons to employ storytelling when making a case, either for your product, or yourself:
Focusing on the Why
Many business discussions quickly devolve into the details of what we’re doing , who’s doing it, when it’s going to be done and how much it’s going to cost. Those are essential components of planning out a successful execution of a plan, but if the plan doesn’t get you to an endpoint that means success for your product or company, then the best plan in the world is ultimately a big waste of time and money.
Storytelling shifts the focus of discussions to start with the why before getting around the rest of it. If the motivation of your decisions makes sense, then the follow-through will have more support and the momentum you need to deliver in a timely fashion.
Tapping into Empathy
Stories have characters, and the connection with those characters transforms a theoretical into something personal. It activates actual feelings of empathy with the subjects of your story, instead of asking them to engage in a purely analytical exercise.
That’s why it’s important your lead characters are fully formed and not just “Joe in Accounting.” They have backstories and hopes and dreams and challenges that your audience can relate to even if they have completely different lives.
Breaking Down Internal Walls
Unless your audience is full of cynical sociopaths, they’re going to be rooting for the characters in your story to succeed. And since those characters are your customers and your audience is full of people who can help them succeed by building a great product, they can play an active role in shaping the ending of your story. Rallying the team around a cohesive vision is one of the unique benefits that a great story can offer.
“Not only do product storytellers identify the intended product value, they also share and evangelize this story throughout their organizations. This is important because it ensures that the entire team understands the why behind what they are doing. A common understanding of the product story allows a team to incubate a shared vision. This vision turns into passion, and people with both passion and vision are more likely to produce products that others want to use. Without a firm understanding of the why, the team risks becoming task focused, losing sight of the big picture, and deflating any sense of empowerment or excitement that once existed. ” says UX expert Sarah Doody.
Winning Over the Skeptics
In our current era of “fake news” and the belief that you can find a statistic that would prove just about anything if you look hard enough, stories can get people focusing on the big picture and not just trying to poke holes in your data.
“In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained,” says mathematician John Allen Paulos. “Whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”
Crafting your tale
So how do you tell a story that leaves them on the edge of their seat and ends with a won-over audience that approves of your vision?
In popular fiction, there’s a common tactic employed by writers and directors called a “cold open” (think the opening scene of pretty much every James Bond movie). It drops you right into a story—there’s action, uncertainty, your emotions are being triggered and your curiosity is aroused.
Compared to the traditional world-building preamble, your brain takes a backseat to your emotions. You can use the same strategy when telling your own stories to suck in your audience right out of the gate.
“It’s important when crafting your story to focus heavily on the first few minutes,” says LearnVest’s Vivek Bedi. “That is when most in the crowd will decide to stick with you or you will lose them.”
This of course means suppressing our defensive instincts, which is to lay a bunch of groundwork that establishes our authority before we make an ask or take our position in an argument.
“Most of us lead with data. If you start your story with the data, the story is dead on arrival because you haven’t provided any context. You might get people nodding their heads, but they’re not really on board. They’re not leaning in. They’re not accepting your story as their story.” says Michael Margolis of Get Storied. “You demonstrate that you have a right to tell the story and that this story is real. The evidence is the proof.”
Stick with your lead characters
When you start your story with Glenda the frustrated photographer that keeps running out of storage space, it needs to end with Glenda solving her storage problems, taking on more wedding jobs and expanding her business with a studio and junior photographers thanks to your amazing new widget.
You got people interested in Glenda and they want to see how it turns out for her. That’s why stories are built around a single character and not an entire cast of individuals with different needs and backgrounds.
“The strongest product managers craft a story around a single user, instead of a group of users. They then take the story and share different angles of it to all the important internal stakeholders — at all hands meetings, working sessions, cross-functional status updates, or any touchpoint that relates to building the solution,” says Jisha Jacob of AppNexus. There will always be other competing voices eager to tell stories about your product. The best way to handle this is to craft a story that is as close and personal to your user as possible. The more emotionally resonant it is, the greater its ability to drown out competing perspectives.”
Another benefit of focusing on a single user is that it brings an element of scale to the situation. Seeing how your product impacts a single person or customer can either be inspiring (because it’s making such a big difference) or humbling (because on an individual basis it’s not that significant).
Tailor your story for your audience
While your story of Matilda the nursing student is relevant to everyone in your company, marketing and engineering are going to care more about different aspects of her tale. So be sure you’re selective about what you focus on for different crowds.
“You need to tell the story in multiple versions to multiple stakeholders, since you are positioned in the middle of the different organizations.” says Tata Lund of Vaadin. “With empathy we can find the needs and motivations the users, customers and internal stakeholders.”
Using numbers to your advantage
Despite all of the focus on narrative, you do still need data to back it all up, otherwise you’re asking stakeholders to buy into a fairytale.
When it’s finally time to unveil data, it’s always best to do it visually. Presentations with visuals are 43% more effective and a well-designed chart provides context, scope and scale without you saying a word, letting you focus on the narrative you’re in the middle of telling.
And your data should be telling a story of its own instead of remaining stagnant. “Data stories should always link data and time (or events) through a narrative flow,” says Christy Petty of Gartner. “By contrast, many visualization forms show data at only one point in time.”
And, of course, less is more when it comes to which data you choose to employ. There’s always another data point you can include or chart you can build, but filtering your data to only include what’s truly complementary to the story convinces your audience of the story’s authenticity.
Looking at the data you have available and the objective of your story, try to come up with three to five data-driven points you want to make, and leave the rest in your back pocket. Ask yourself whether this data helps your story move forward or sidetracks the narrative, and make sure it doesn’t distract the audience by questioning their current beliefs unless it’s truly critical to your objective.
There’s a reason they don’t talk about insurance premiums for Jurassic Park and no one really delves into the economics of the trade wars that provide the back story for Star Wars. We just want to see dinosaurs chasing people and spaceships blowing up – and the people who are really passionate will want all the other story details, too.