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Be alert to the tricks of data storytelling...

...so that you can avoid using them and thereby preserve your impartiality

If you want to improve your data communication skills, learn to tell stories with data. This idea has now become so accepted, so widespread, so mainstream, that it’s almost become the new orthodoxy. But for all of this new-found popularity of data storytelling techniques, there’s still a big, unanswered question: if we adopt storytelling methods in order to make our data messages more compelling, do we thereby risk our impartiality? By embedding our data in narratives, are we in danger of becoming subjective interpreters of data instead of the objective purveyors of data that we perhaps ought to be?

If we hold the view that data analysts are objective, honest, expert witnesses whose job it is to merely extract, analyse and present the data, then we can’t really feel comfortable with the idea that they also be allowed to start drawing conclusions from the data or—even worse—arguing a case with data. Put like that, the solution to the objective/subjective conundrum seems straightforward: stick to just presenting the facts. Hang on to your neutrality.

But it’s not as simple as this, because there is a bigger problem. The "number-cruncher-as-neutral-purveyor-of-objective-data" view of the world assumes that the people asking for the data (a) know what data is available, (b) know what data they want, and (c) know how to make sense of it when they get it. But in the NHS this is often not the case. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles that analysts need to surmount is the deep-rooted antipathy towards data that is felt—and sometimes openly expressed—by many NHS managers. This means that we’re not just in the business of communicating data to managers; we’re also in the business of selling data to managers. We are selling the idea that data is a good and useful thing. And many of us have worked out that if we present just the facts to managers, without first taking the trouble to arrange those facts into a meaningful narrative, it gets a lot harder to engage these “data-hostile” people.

So how can we square this circle? How can we continue to use storytelling techniques to make our data engaging, but without at the same time compromising our reputation for objective integrity?

The answer is that we can still use storytelling techniques but we need to be much more keenly aware of its dangers. We need to be alert to storytelling’s tricks. Not so that we can make use of them in order to further our Machiavellian ambitions, but—instead—so that we can avoid using them in ways that will jeopardise our impartiality.

Most of us know from our schooldays that narrative technique can be used to consciously (and sometimes cynically) persuade and influence people. If you studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, you will remember that Mark Antony provides a masterclass of these manipulative techniques in his famous speech that begins “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

You also get a sense of what some of storytelling’s tricks are in Nancy Duarte’s famous Resonate analysis of the “I have a dream” speech and the launch of the iPhone. She shows us how Martin Luther King used scriptural references, repetition and visual metaphor to make and strengthen his argument. She shows us how Steve Jobs marvels at his own product, and, in doing so, models for his audience how he wants them to behave when they see and touch and hold his new phone.

And I came across another account of storytelling’s tricks a couple of weeks ago when I read this superb article by Roger Stedman, the most useful and thoughtful piece I have yet encountered on the subject of Mid-Staffordshire and the Francis Report. Stedman invokes Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow when he explains the techniques you can use if you want to mislead people: priming, framing, narrative fallacy, availability bias and statistical blindness. You really need to read (and re-read) Stedman’s article to get a sense of how these techniques work.

So, if we can get wise to storytelling’s trickery, will that allow us to cancel out its worst excesses and give us a licence to apply its techniques?

Yes, it will. In fact, we need to get wise to its trickery. We need to tame storytelling. Because one thing is certain:  if we don’t find ways of making numbers more appealing to NHS managers, then they will continue to switch off as soon as we begin talking about data. We have to find methods of making data engaging whilst retaining our integrity.

And as luck would have it, Stephen Few published a piece yesterday that helps us on our way. In a piece entitled Stories and Data: an Extraordinary Collaboration, he puts the case for storytelling where reason, not emotion, is the driving force behind the narrative:

The persuasive mechanism of stories is usually emotional, not rational. Stories ordinarily move us when they tap into our feelings, not our ability to reason. Storytelling with data, when true to its purpose, however, appeals to reason, asking people to think rationally and be moved primarily by what they come to understand, not by what they feel.

So we can apply storytelling techniques to the way we present data. It’s just that instead of tugging at people’s heartstrings, we need instead to learn to tug at their brainstrings.

[2 May 2013]

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