Our Thoughts

Stories & Science; Belief & Knowledge

20th May 2019

We talk about Storytelling a lot at TLF.

Finding ways to tell better, more compelling, more persuasive stories is essential if you want to achieve difficult, long term, goals such as culture change or improved customer experience.

Good stories touch people emotionally, link their day to day decisions with an outcome that means something to them, and persuade them to make change happen.

Stories are deceiving

But stories can also be dangerous. We find narratives so compelling that we rush to invent stories to explain any fact, statistic, or research finding. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Narrative Fallacy”, and data science expert Kaiser Fung reserves a whole category of posts on his blog for what he calls “Story Time”.

Our ability to weave simple explanations for complex, even random, series of events means that the stories we tell ourselves have a feeling of inevitability that works only in hindsight. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in the classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow”:

“…the ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance.”

So, if making up stories to account for the data we have is flawed, how do we make sense of the world? Science.

Science (a word derived from the Latin scire, “to know”), has developed over centuries as a systematic method for learning about the world. The scientific method is designed to minimise the impact of our cognitive biases, such as making up stories or only noticing things which confirm our beliefs.

Rigorous analysis is the only way to learn robust truths about the world. Every time you come up with an explanation, or hear one from someone else, examine it. Ask how you or they know that's the real answer. If your story is robust, you should have been expecting the finding before you saw it.

That's why I often ask clients to predict what's happened to their headline satisfaction index or NPS before I show them what the data says, otherwise it's too easy to explain away the increase/decrease (whichever it is).

Science to learn, stories to teach

Should we give up on storytelling, given that we’re so prone to be misled by it?

Absolutely not. Once we have learned a fundamental truth about the world (through science), we need to communicate that insight to other people. We need to get their attention, persuade them to believe us, and convince them to change what they do.

Too often, in society and in organisations, we see arguments won by people with a simple story over those trying to explain a much more complicated truth. If we want to learn about the world, and use that knowledge to make better decisions, we need to learn to tell better stories with a firm foundation of science at their heart.

In my Data Storytelling workshop I use this graphic to summarise how hard it is to do this kind of data-based storytelling well. You need to be good at three very different skills.

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In order to use data to drive change we need the care and objectivity of a scientist or statistician to learn important truths, the flair of a graphic designer to engage people’s attention, and the craft of a storyteller to communicate and persuade people to change.

Science and storytelling should not be in conflict. It's when we find ways to make them work together that significant change happens.

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