Stuck in the Story Loop

Why are you still searching for ‘storytelling’ skills support in 2021?

It seems we can’t go a day without someone mentioning the need for better storytelling. As highlighted in the 2021 GRIT Report it continues to be a buzz topic, along with its partner in crime data visualization. 69% of respondents say they’re already using storytelling/data visualization in their work. So how come we’re still asking for more support in this skillset? Didn’t we nail this the first (or was it third) time around?

There’s an issue that immediately springs to mind: why storytelling and data visualization? They’re not the same thing. If I add a chart to my deck does that mean I’ve ticked the storytelling box? And here lies the main challenge facing insights businesses who want to improve their storytelling: they don’t really understand what storytelling actually is.

Look, it’s not their fault. Like any brand or business that wants to use the power of narrative, story or storytelling, they’ve turned to specialists to help them navigate their way through the woods. But not everyone gets guided to Grandmother’s house in one piece. Just like Little Red herself, some are led astray from the path. They get lost in the weeds and bracken of academic theory. Or, at the other extreme, they’re shown how to bulldoze through the trees, build a three-lane highway, and land straight at the old lady’s front door. “It’s got a beginning, middle and end, let’s call that a story.”

Both these approaches lead nowhere. The first leaves insights teams scrabbling to understand what a story really is and unsure how to craft it. The second is just paying lip-service to the notion of storytelling by making content only marginally more interesting. Just adding a fun image or using some descriptive language, and not really grabbing the audience. But there is a third way. A good business story, a useful story, would actually choose an alternate route: a direct, yet scenic road.

When we’re communicating something important to an audience (be it one or one thousand) we have to do a lot of the work for them, if we really want our message to land. We can’t just throw data, tables, and graphics around and expect our core narrative to stick. We have to seriously consider the storyline that connects them. If we don’t provide enough of a plot for an audience to latch onto, they’re just going to create their own. That’s why we should start thinking of story as utility.

The evidence supports the notion that our brains use stories and storytelling to create meaning and a sense of the world. And the research is vast. Neuroscientists agree, we take all the information and data we experience on a daily basis and churn it through our brain to create our own mini dramas. The brain can’t help it. It wants to make connections and meaning. It wants to find something to empathise with. It wants to resolve conflicts and overcome struggles. It’s looking for specific story elements to keep it engaged and focused. It wants that irresistible combination of the familiar, but with a slight twist in the tale.

So, how can we use this knowledge of the brain’s relationship to stories? We can begin by being clearer. Not everything is a story. Not everything is storytelling. Nor should it be. If there’s a fire in the building, no one wants a three-act structured plot about the relationship between the flames and the fuel. We want to know where the exits are. But for those occasions when a story or storytelling tools are needed (when we’re trying to sell an idea or insight for example), we should be building the right elements into our communications to help our message land.

We should be drawing on the utility of stories and storytelling. Compelling story plots will hook an audience into our content. Placing data in the context of human characters, situations, and experiences creates empathy. We can build appropriate conflicts and tensions into our communication and the mind of our audience, by posing questions, creating dilemmas, and resolving issues.

We need to rethink the way we’re describing our content – presentations, reports, etc. Is it really a story? Does it actually use compelling storytelling? Do we know the difference between those two things? By placing all vaguely interesting content under the story umbrella, we end up diluting the power of this most human of tools. And so, the reason many of us are stuck in a story loop, saying we’re telling stories but not seeing strong enough results and so saying we need more support, is because we’ve created an environment where everything can be a story. It can’t.

A copy of this article was posted on the Greenbook Blog in June 2021