Make Your Data Resonate with Storytelling

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Stories are very powerful because your audience is already familiar with this structure; they can identify themselves with the hero, and stories keep their attention. This means that your idea will be better transmitted and they will remember it more.

Nancy Duarte wrote a great book[1] about how to make presentations that “resonate,” which I strongly suggest you read (this book has several examples of great speeches and presentations). Here I will introduce some of the main concepts related to storytelling, which can be very useful when planning a presentation.

First, you have to remember that a presentation is not a report presented through a PowerPoint. Neither is it a story, where dramatization is the key. Presentations are a sort of midpoint where you alternate facts and storytelling to give information in an entertaining manner. The main principle of storytelling to include in your presentation is the creation of a desire, which you will explain how to fulfill. This desire comes from a situation of conflict or imbalance (how it is now) and the fulfillment (how it would be) can be achieved if the audience decides to cross a threshold, start the adventure to solve the situation, and get the reward for the risk taken. For the audience, this step means a change to which they may be very reluctant, so your presentation will be about mentoring and persuading your audience about why they should overcome this threshold.

Beginning: You introduce yourself, make it clear that that the audience is your hero, and present a situation where everybody agrees or can agree. In this phase, you must connect with them using shared experiences, goals that you have in common, or similar qualifications. For this reason, it is very important that you get to know them even before you start your presentation.

Call to adventure: This is the first turning point where you present the conflict, the gap between what it is and what it could be. What it could be represents the destination of the hero’s journey and you should carefully define it. You have to convince them that the sacrifice they have to do to make a change is worthy of the reward that waits for them.

Middle: This is the central part of your presentation where you explain the main ideas and topics, where you make your point. Here it is important to keep the attention by creating contrast. You can achieve that by comparing what it is and what it would be, by going back and forth from analytical explanation and emotional parts, or by delivering the message in different ways (media, style, etc.).

Call to action: This is the second turning point and here you explain more specifically what you want your audience to do.

End: Here you usually highlight again what it could be and the next steps to be taken for the adventure.

Nancy Duarte suggests using a sparkline to plot your story. Sparklines allow you to define the chronological sequence, the different contrasts you are creating in the middle part, the “STAR” moments along with the presentation, and the main points.

Speech sparkline (Source: Adapted from Nancy Duarte, Resonate)

I strongly suggest you read her book where you can find examples of sparklines applied to famous speeches, for example, Steve Job’s launch of the iPhone. You can apply these principles to your speech. I wanted to show you an example using an entertaining speech about data and statistics: Hans Rosling’s TED talks with the famous moving bubbles.[2] In his speech, he starts with an introduction, which is also a short story on his new job as a global development teacher to undergraduate Swedish students. Stories help to keep the interest of the audience and “humanize” the speaker; they bring him closer to the public. He then presents the current situation, or “what it is,” the lower part of the sparkline. In this speech, the current situation is that people are quite ignorant about several global facts, such as mortality rates in different countries. He uses the examples of students and teachers taking a test about choosing the country with the highest mortality rate. Due to preconceived ideas, both students and teachers had poor results. This is the shocking moment when the problem becomes relevant and people start to feel the need to solve it. In addition, he makes this moment humorous by comparing the scores with hypothetical chimpanzees answering the questionnaire and getting better results than students and teachers. Then, Rosling explains that there is an urgent need to communicate in order to overcome preconceived wrong ideas.

At this point, in my opinion, we have the “star moment” when he contrasts the wrong idea of students about a world with two groups of countries (west and third world) using a chart with moving bubbles. The dynamic visualization, his exciting explanation of the moving bubbles, and the revealing new information that the audience receives—all this creates a sort of climax. At the end of the star moment, people see “what could be,” that is, that the power of available data revealed by good visualizations can help overcome preconceptions and have a more accurate understanding of the world. During the rest of the presentation, he continues to create contrast with wrong preconceptions and the reality using dynamic data visualizations. Moving the speech from what it is and what could be creates the necessary contrast to keep people interested and to make them think about it even after the presentation. Toward the end, Rosling talks about the call to action, namely the Gapminder project, how it works, and how it could change the world. And it is this very idea about how this project can change the world that has to be repeated at the very end of the speech to give a “new bliss”: a world with more knowledgeable people able to make better decisions.

[1] Nancy Duarte, Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010).


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