Shaping Your Analytics Stories


By Ben Olsen, CEO, Analytics Guild

Good storytellers keep a certain narrative shape in their stories, an underlying architecture. Narratives themselves are an account of connected events that have emotional ups and downs. When we’re working in analytics, understanding these building blocks of story allows us to be aware of what we’re crafting in our presentation—how we’re leveraging story composition to create a compelling case for our hard-won insights and answers.

Kurt Vonnegut brought narrative shapes to the public’s attention through his work on the subject—for example, Cinderella’s arc looks like so:

Every story, Cinderella included, has a beginning, middle, and an ending. At the Computational Story Laboratory in the University of Vermont in Burlington, Andrew Reagan and fellow researchers used sentiment analysis to understand these shapes.

They found six patterns that represented the main “building blocks of complex narratives”:

1) A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll.
2) A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet.
3) A fall and then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story discussed by Vonnegut.
4) A rise and then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus.
5) Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella.
6) Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

These story “archetypes” become especially interesting when we look at which are the more popular. As Andrew and his team discovered: “The most popular are stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs and stories that follow more complex arcs that use the basic building blocks in sequence. In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.”

You can bring life and power to your analytics presentation by using one of these six archetypes as the building blocks of your analytics story.

For example, a steady stream of negative insights (“revenue is falling,” “we’re losing customers”) doesn’t have to be the only thing an analyst brings to the table when sharing the bad news. Maybe there’s a silver lining—some positive statistic—that can soften the blow of a data “tragedy,” turning the one-sided tale into a fall-rise pattern. Similarly, the extremely positive story you have to tell can be combined with an account of how the company changed over time to overcome certain obstacles, which provides context for the positive news (rise-fall-rise).

Here is one simple way to use the Icarus template (rise-and-fall) today. Pair a generally positive insight with a clear call to action. Now you can tell a more effective and memorable data story by following the good news with a few reminders of the challenges that still need to be overcome, and perhaps even offer how your insight will help the company meet those challenges. That’s motivating; that’s a good story.

Like stories, the combinations of these building blocks are infinite, and there’s no right answer: only good, better, and best. Start with your insights (your story materials) and see if they seem to fall into a natural arc. Ask yourself what the best outcome of your presentation or memo would be. And remember that contextualizing your insights will always make them more memorable, honest, and long-lasting.

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