Join Bill Shander for an in-depth discussion in this video Wired for story, part of Data Visualization Storytelling Essentials.
- [Voiceover] Every marketer, politician, and fundraisers being told to be a storyteller. Is storytelling just the hot new thing? Absolutely not. I think storytelling is the ancient, necessary, boring, old thing. Let me explain, one of my favorite conference talks I've been to recently was a presentation by Michael Austin, who wrote a book called, "Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety "and the Origins of Literature." Austin makes the point that every single human culture invest immense resources into producing and consuming stories, and has done so since the dawn of time.
There must be an evolutionary advantage to this. Austin says a few things, but one of the most interesting is the idea that fictional stories can produce and neutralize anxiety. Why would we want to do this? Because if you think about it, your survival depends on anxiety. Say you're walking through the savanna, and you hear a rustling in the grass, do you stay or do you run like a madman, shrieking in fear? The argument is that you should run every time. Even though 99% of the time, it's not a lion stalking you, but just the wind or a squirrel making that noise, but if you don't run, if you don't behave based on a false positive response, then one time out of a hundred, you die.
Successful narratives introduce and then resolve our anxiety. Through this, we learn how to solve our problems, and the important idea that the challenges and fears we face are solvable. Another person who talks about this is Lisa Cron. I love her book, "Wired for Story." The subtitle really sums it up, "The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers "from the Very First Sentence." And she's making a lot of similar arguments as Michael Austin. For instance, she says, "Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution, "more so than opposable thumbs.
"Opposable thumbs let us hang on, "stories told us what to hang on to. "Story is what enabled us to imagine "what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it." So she's saying the exact say thing as Michael Austin. Cron goes on to say that one of the first things a story has to do is help us suspend our disbelief. Our brain has to feel like we're experience reality, not like we're being told a story. It has to feel real. And there's a lot of brain science to back this up. For instance, a study she cites that found that brain imaging of people engrossed in a story will show the brain activating the portions of the brain that are fired when people actually process real sights, sounds, tastes, and movements in real life.
Before we go too far here, I do want to make an important point. Both Austin and Cron are talking mostly about fictional storytelling, whereas we're talking here more about journalistic or documentary storytelling, or we're talking about data storytelling. I'm not advocating creating fiction here, right, but the point is that humans have evolved to hear stories, and stories that look and feel a certain way, and I would argue that even documentary stories have to behave in some ways like fictional stories, at least as far as the receiving brain perceives them. Stories like these aren't about suspending disbelief, rather they're about actuating a belief, which is a line I stole from Kim Rees in a talk she gave at a conference arguing against the term "data storytelling." She argues that we shouldn't be telling stories with data, but just letting the data speak for itself, but I belief she was arguing against the fictional implication of the term "storytelling." My point is that I believe even when you let the data speak for itself, it has to be in a structure that the audience's brain will perceive as a story, even if you aren't injecting fiction, surely, or opinion, or a narrator's undue influence on top of it.
Going back in time, thinking about the evolutionary imperative, many early stories were documentaries, not fictions. Like when ancient men went out on a hunt and came back to the cave to report the results, he told stories, it was a compelling narrative, and yes, it contained data, right? The story would explain what time the hunting party left, what direction they traveled, where they found their prey, how many miles they ran, et cetera. But they were telling it in a story form, they didn't have a spreadsheet, it was always a story. Humans evolved to produce and consume stories as a survival mechanism.
We need story, we expect story. We recognize what makes up a story, so when you're communicating, you have to think like a storyteller, especially when you're communicating data, which is inherently not anxiety producing, and does not produce any emotion or evolutionary imperative. The data means nothing without context, without the story form around it. So communicating data in a story is necessary, natural, and essential.
Join data visualization expert Bill Shander as he guides you through the process of turning "facts and figures" into "story" to engage and fulfill our human expectation for information. This course is intended for anyone who works with data and has to communicate it to others, whether a researcher, a data analyst, a consultant, a marketer, or a journalist. Bill shows you how to think about, and craft, stories from data by examining many compelling stories in detail.
- Creating a narrative structure for data
- Applying narrative to data
- Identifying what you want to say with the data
- Analyzing what your data is saying
- Determining what your audience needs to hear
- Leveraging tables, charts, and visuals
- Ensuring your narrative provides context and direction