The power of storytelling in the world obsessed with data

“Stories tell us of what we already knew and forgot, and remind us of what we haven’t yet imagined.”

Anne Watson

From Emotive Storytelling

For thousands years telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. The rise of big data however shifted focus on metrics undercutting the power of storytelling and leaving off the agenda those things that can not be measured. Is storytelling a dying art form then?

To answer that question, lets have a deeper look at data-driven decision making. Decision making is lying across a broad spectrum. At one end of that spectrum are operational decisions, which are generally highly structured, routine, short-term oriented and increasingly embodied in sophisticated software applications. At the other end of the spectrum are strategic decisions. These are usually taken by high levels of management as they set the long-term directions and policies of a business, government or other organizations. They tend to be complex, and unstructured because of the uncertainty and risks that generally accompany longer term decisions. In between are many kinds of decisions, including non-routine ones in response to new or unforeseen circumstances beyond the scope of operational processes, and tactical decisions dealing with the necessary adjustments required to implement longer term strategies.

Given their structured nature, data analysis have long been applied to automate routine, day-to-day operational decisions, such as logistics and inventory management, personalized marketing offers and recommendations, and fraud detection in financial transactions. Beyond automated operational decisions, however, there are many situations where data alone might not be enough. As an example, strategic decisions aimed at shaping the future by setting the long term directions and policies of an organization, often cannot be ferreted out from the available data. In complex matters, what begins to matter more than mere data is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. When dealing with complexity, “narrative imagining” or storytelling can become a powerful instrument of thought as well as a key communication tool.

As cognitive scientist Mark Turner points out, “most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories”. Narrative helps us make sense of a world that is rapidly changing as it can be focused on the next generation of change, not just an extrapolation of the present. Stories fuel innovation. They hold the power to transform listeners; to take listeners on a journey that changes how they think, feel or act. Stories can elicit emotional connections that make them a very powerful persuasion tool. Studies also show that we are wired to remember stories much more than mere data, facts, and figures. While mere numbers and graphs often kill a presentation’s soul turning into an insomnia relief for the listeners, stories have the power of transforming presented data into knowledge eagerly absorbed by the audience.

Not surprisingly,  legendary vizier‘s daughter Scheherazade has chosen the power of storytelling  in an effort to save the lives of thousands of women. After 1,001 nights, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her 1,000 tales, the king not only spared her life, but made her his queen.

scheherazadeFrom Scheherazade 


3 thoughts on “The power of storytelling in the world obsessed with data

  1. Good evening O, I attended a conference on Friday about future direction is education. One of the things amongst many that came up was the suggestion that story telling is a fundamental tool used by teachers to connect with their students.
    I agree with that premise as I certainly have used it a lot in my work. What it does is create for your students a sense of the teacher as being a human, that he/she has some connection with the world and that they are not just deliverers of knowledge.
    So for me story is alive and well.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Very good point. I’m totally with you on that. Storytelling is very important in education. It is a very powerful tool for transforming ‘dead’ data into ‘live’ knowledge, connecting to students and making lessons engaging. I also see importance of storytelling in learning assessment. As a parent, when I come to see my children’s teachers, I would like them to tell me a story about my child’s learning, my child’s social interactions with other children etc. Pure assessment data is not enough for most parents.

      • Thats a very good point too O, about having your children’s teacher tell a story rather than saying he/she is going good. We do want to hear more than that don’t we.
        It’s one of the reasons I was never in favour of marks on kids reports. I always thought a written analysis was more useful, though I have to admit time consuming. I always wrote a different comment for each child. It was time consuming but parents would maybe have a better understanding of where their child was at.

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