The Art of Data: Use Stories to Inspire Action

“Storytelling makes the brain light up in a way no other form of communication does. Now that scientists have studied the brain while a story is being told, they can measure and map brain activity.”—Nancy Duarte, in her book “Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story”

The Art—and Science—of Data

When a brain “lights up” on an fMRI scan, it indicates that all lobes are engaged. In case you aren’t a neuro-major-turned-fresh-produce marketer: the brain is comprised of different areas (almost like departments), each of which is distinctly responsible for controlling certain parts of the body, engaging in thought, experiencing emotions, and saving to memory.

Nancy Duarte, author of Data Story, our latest read, explains that stories affect all neurological “departments,” therefore triggering all senses and activating memory. They spark emotional, sensory, and physical reactions, which is key to making information both immediately impactful and also lasting.

Furthermore, stories are personal. Not only do they bring people together to experience common ground and create a connection between the teller and listener, but most importantly, stories stir people to act. As Duarte writes, “Stories capture our attention, causing us to emotionally connect with others and feel motivated to embark on a course of action.” For fresh produce, this insight should give us all pause. If stories drive people to action, are we doing the best job of telling our brand story in meaningful ways? Are we building a brand that’s memorable?

But here’s the deal: stories are merely warm-fuzzies if they aren’t grounded in compelling information. Nor is information compelling if it isn’t communicated in a way that is palatable. Marrying the connectivity of storytelling with the smarts of data is paramount to reaching all of your 2020 business goals, from marketing and sales to business development and operations. As you move into yearly planning, consider these key insights from Duarte’s work:

Transform Numbers into Narratives

According to statistics provided by Story Data, only 5% of people remember individual statistics, yet 63% of people remember the story. So much for “let the numbers speak for themselves,” right? No matter your role within a company, your ability to lead teams effectively is largely driven by your ability to pull meaningful findings out of your data.

Duarte explains that identifying a problem or opportunity through data is just the beginning, and quite frankly, something that anyone could do. The ability to develop a point of view based on the data presented to you—and communicating that idea clearly to your team—is what moves your brand from good to great.

For instance: how much product you’re selling at a particular time in a particular store is good information to have. However, being able to then take that data and build a shopper story around the different personas of people who are consuming your products is what brings the information to life, what enables you to make wise decisions about your brand strategy.

Communicate Data Thoughtfully to Lead More Effectively

Knowing your audience is the single most important factor to consider when communicating data. Here at DMA Solutions, we analyze websites, blogs, newsletters, social media and more to glean a plethora of meaningful data about shoppers. From these insights, we build out marketing recommendations for our clients. Without a clear understanding of who we’re developing our presentation for, we would not be convincing, memorable, or impactful.

As Duarte states, “Communicating data effectively isn’t about creating sexy charts and showcasing your smarts. No, it’s about knowing the right amount of information to share, in what way, and to whom.” Whether it’s your sales team, trade partners, or your customers, our question and challenge for you is this: are you communicating your findings appropriately to your audience in order to drive a desired outcome?


Invest Time in Communication Skills

A 2018 LinkedIn Workforce Report shed light on skills gaps in the workforce, and the results demonstrated that the top skills gap in the market today is “soft skills.” For marketers, that reinforces that fact that shifting from the role of a head-down, data-exploring contributor to more of an “inspirational speaker backed by insights” is pivotal for meeting the needs of our customers.

Data Story provides the simple example of learning how to communicate through a “What-Why-How Model.”

            What: Make clear what needs to be done and support with evidence.

            Why: (Persuasive layer) Describe the data that needs to change and why. These statements usually start with, “Because…”

            How: What process must happen to support the recommendation?

Embrace the Power of Story

People are emotional creatures. Whether you’re talking to a customer, a co-worker, or a key decision-maker, everyone is influenced by the power of an effective story. When presenting data to an audience, Duarte encourages us to reveal the “hidden data” within a presentation. Drive your audience to engage deeper, and elicit reactions by surprising them with the unexpected.

For instance, reading between the lines of your data and interpreting a deeper value gives the numbers a strikingly different meaning than your audience may see at surface level when presented with the data alone. For instance: portraying a set of data with a variety of visuals (in order to build a narrative that leads up to a key insight or story “climax”) is a surefire way to put an “exclamation point” on the message you want to get across. It’s the leap from “what” to “why.” It is your job as a presenter to bring your audience along in a way that is clear and comprehensible.

Bottom Line: Leverage Data to Influence Action

Nancy, much like Donald Miller, puts it this way in regards to being the mentor (or guide) to the hero (the audience): “When you use your data to provide timely and critical guidance to decision-makers, you change organizational outcomes…giving others data in the nick of time brings greater success in reaching a desired goal.”

Regardless of your specific audience, people all have one thing in common: they are faced with some sort of decision. If it’s a shopper, it’s a decision of what product to choose. If it’s a trade customer, it’s a decision of what product to put on their shelves. If it’s internal leadership, it’s a decision of direction for the business. If you can provide the right information in the “nick of time” presented in a way that is impactful, you can position yourself as a mentor with the ability to influence a desired outcome. At the end of the day, marketing is about persuading someone to do something. And we agree with Nancy: a “data story” may well be the best tool we have—and one that won’t be fading any time soon!

Stay tuned as we share more on what we’re learning about the power of stories and data in marketing. Class is in session at DMA!

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