Without a Story, Analytics Is Dead Evidence


By Ben Olsen, CEO, Analytics Guild

We are in the business of bolstering or busting beliefs as efficiently and honestly as possible in the analytics profession. It’s fundamental to what analytics is for. ”Decision support” and “business intelligence” are descriptive of the end goal, and in order to get to the place where decisions can be supported and businesses really do get smarter, people must first have their minds altered by the process of analytical consumption. Understanding cognitive biases is critical for mastering analytics because we must consider the ways our minds can trick us or hinder our effectiveness when dealing with the complexities of data work. 

Increasingly though, we’re finding that storytelling is the critical overarching skill that analytics professionals need to develop in order to unlock the full impact of analytics in the day-to-day. Brené Brown, a leading scholar and speaker, shares the power of storytelling:

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative within a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.

Analytics needs storytelling because we require analytics to be able to “justify or change [our] beliefs with the use of evidence in the form of data,” as data scientist Andrew Carson says, “in order to generate true (or truer) beliefs.” These better beliefs about business are desirable because “they are more in accord with reality, are more effective in bringing about one's goals.” 

Beliefs are stowed away by your peers, bosses, vendors, and customers—some firmly held, some more loosely. In general, they are ideas or descriptions of events and reality that we judge to be true. The kind of beliefs that are related to business can be about the state of the company, the market, the customers, financial health…anything that business is and touches. And the more strongly these beliefs are held, the more likely consumers of analytics put up resistance to changing them. 

The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story
—Anthony de Mello

Without a story, analytics is dead evidence. Stories create the brain space (literally, through that cortisol and oxytocin) to empathize with your boss, connect with your peers, and make your charts, dashboards, and reports come alive. 

In fact, you already created a story when you found your insights in the first place and realized their importance (“making meaning”) in relation to the matters at hand. The natural next step is to nurture and grow those insights into the full blossom of a story so others can live through the insight experience you had.

Transformation is the result of analytical storytelling. Great novels and movies shouldn’t be the only forms of storytelling that connect to our deepest needs. Properly told, analytics can activate our empathy, insight, and understanding, too. It’s up to us to embrace the responsibility this work bears in impacting the beliefs of others. Sterile terms like “data governance” will then take on a whole new meaning for the workforce as employees and customers alike discover the delight that analytical storytelling can bring. 

If you liked this post and want more of the practical side of storytelling, contact us today to find out more about our analytical storytelling workshops for you and your teams. Photo above by Dan Century.