Storying Your Data – Part 1

The organization I lead generates a bunch of data.

We provide leadership development in under-resourced populations, so we have data about the number of leaders that are engaged in our programs.

We have data about the number of events we conduct each quarter.

We have cool data about the impact of our services on leaders.

But when we began telling “Jairus’ story” to our stakeholders, the data has found a voice. 

Stories Attach Meaning to Data

We’ve heard the phrase “the data speaks for itself,” but the truth is, data almost never communicates clearly for itself. When leaders interact with customers, with funders, with their boards, or with their own teams, stories give them ways to attach meaning to relevant data. With Jairus’ story of leading in war-torn South Sudan, we are able to help audiences “touch and feel” our data. 

Stories Improve Human Learning

Story matches the way human minds are hardwired to process information. In fact, story structure can improve all modes of human learning. The National Council of Teachers of English stated,

Story is the best vehicle for passing on factual information. Historical figures and events linger in minds when communicated by way of narrative. The ways of other cultures, both ancient and living, acquire honor in story. The facts about how plants and animals develop, how numbers work, or how government policy influence history—any topic for that matter—can be incorporated into story form and made more memorable.1

Stories Bring Evidence to Life

People – regardless of their educational or socio-economic level – live, think, and communicate through stories. Without exception, research studies support the ability of story to improve comprehension. Stories, rather than logical arguments, are more effective in helping people process and derive meaning, especially when the topic of information is unfamiliar. People more readily comprehend and retain key concepts when they are presented in story form. In other words, stories bring your evidence to life. It may be the information you want to communicate, but it’s the story that creates context and relevance so that it is memorable. It may be an objective or goal you want to get across, but it is the story, the obstacles and struggles, that make it comprehensible. It may be the data you want to present, but the story characters and their intentions give readers a reason to care about your data.

There’s a lot at stake for leaders tasked with communicating their organizational data well. So how do we translate the data into meaningful story?  That’s our topic for the next blog.


1NCTE Committee on Storytelling. Teaching Storytelling: A Position Statement from the Committee on Storytelling of the National Council of Teachers of English (Urbana, IL, 1992).

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