Why we need storytellers AND scientists

Guest post by Katherine Pomfret, Chief Organiser Big Data Week Leeds, originally published on LinkedIn.

We all grew up with stories.

We loved them as children, when the world was a large and confusing place, because they offered certainty. They delivered powerful messages to our minds, and we learned about the world without realising we were learning, and without having to put in effort.

Because images were clear and consistent (all witches are wicked, all princes are handsome, all forests are dangerous), and because of the relentless cause and effect movement of the narrative, we felt confident in drawing conclusions on the basis of stories, and felt confident also in our judgement as to the rightness, or otherwise, of a given course of action (do not leave the castle after nightfall; never trust an ogre).

The right words and the right pictures remove ambiguity and inspire confidence. I recommend Bruno Bettelheim’s marvellous Uses of Enchantment to any parent wanting to understand the value of fairy story in psychological development as well as to any marketer wanting to understand why our brains respond more quickly to metaphor than fact and how to use codification to increase response.

But at some point we learned that storytelling was childish or (that accusation most beloved of the insecure, status-conscious and diversity-hating)…’unprofessional’.

At some point, an awareness that the world (and the professional world in particular, and the business world most of all) was complex, led to a mistrust of the symbolism of stories and the certainty they offered.

At some point we came to believe less in pictures and words and believe more in numbers.

My thinking goes:

Businesses don’t need more data. Managers may think they do, if they are struggling either to get the data they need to make decisions confidently or to define the impact of their past actions on business results.

With data coming into businesses from stores, phones, cars, websites, IoT devices, social media, order processing systems and invoicing systems, the

·      Volume

·      Velocity

·      Variety

·      Variability

Of data coming into our businesses has never been greater.

This means competitive advantage will be gained by those companies who can:

·      Access and index (ie store) data from across their business at high-speed and ideally in near real-time

·      Combine and collate data from different systems and ‘owned’ by different departmental silos to give an unambiguous picture of ‘what is happening now’

·      Interrogate data to gain answers to urgent or strategic business questions

New technologies (SAS, Splunk etc) are changing the speed with which businesses can react to customer and operational activity.

If you haven’t used such technologies, which essentially draw data from across an entire business, interrogate and correlate it to give ‘single powerful moments of truth’, then imagine a Google for your business. Imagine having on your desktop an app that let’s you type in your big concerns – Should I drop price? or Which campaign is on track to deliver the best whole-business ROI? – and gives you the answer.

A data narrative turns massive streams of machine data, including in-store transactions and online behaviour and call centre activity levels and central and regional stock levels and social media messages into a single powerful message that instructs the organisation to act.

It turns management team meetings from:

·      Why did we fall short of sales targets last quarter?


·      How many customers weren’t satisfied yesterday, across which channel and what have we done about it?

·      How has our lost revenue trended in the last week and is regional stock availability, queue length in store or web page loading speed more responsible?

·      What proportion of our sales increase is due to each of the following: the effectiveness of online ads, the price promotions we have offered, call centre response times, inventory stock holding levels?

But however clever the technology, I have yet to find a software that tells a story, though many claim to.

Business technologies’ ability to emotionally engage is in its infancy. Fan as I am of customer advocacy platforms and their ilk, no-one is convincing me that their strength in driving desirable behaviours through a reward-based system is proof of ability to inspire feelings of passion, desire, fear or hatred. It’s these feelings that successful leaders need to be unafraid of eliciting, and using in a safe way to increase the performance and coherence of teams in a competitive environment.

Businesses need people who can turn data into stories. In fighting for the relevance of story, and in publishing on LinkedIn where almost every third story in my feed tells me that technology outperforms people, I am fighting for the human.

A story:

  • is easy to understand, requiring no effort or past knowledge or experience
  • starts from an assumption of shared ‘sameness’ and brings people, including opposing departments, together
  • has a teller and a listener, and exists in the space between them, which is constantly moving
  • draws on the power of symbolism to offer a truth that is applicable beyond a specific context, because it creates a shared belief in important cultural (or organisational) principles and in doing so inculcates a group identity that successful teams in order to perform
  • has a narrative – ie a chain of cause and effect and focuses managers minds on the fact that however random this world may seem: things happen for a reason

People who can do this, people who can master the data and the software and the human to create data stories that inspire and engage, people who through stories create shared values and approaches and confidence and optimism in the future: these are the people we need.

  • Big Data Week Leeds events, which I am curating, can be found at www.alscient.com/events
  • Bruno Bettelheim’s book, first published almost 50 years ago is still in print and is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Uses-Enchantment-Meaning-Importance-Psychology/dp/0140137270
  • Splunk is the technology our data team choose for speed and value of operational data analysis. SAS is the technology our data team choose to model and predict future customer, competitor and supplier behaviour.

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