On a Thursday afternoon in the middle of May 2017, I phoned a client prospect. I had known the person for a year. He was the People Analytics leader in a multinational company. I had not spoken to him for a few months and asked him “How are things?”: I did not expect the response.
“I just came out of a meeting. We have been doing a project for several months and we got thrown out of the meeting early and told to stop the project. It was horrible. All this work for nothing.”
There was more. “We got too detailed. The focus went to the technical aspects and analysis and we lost the client. They didn’t understand what we had done. We lost it. We should not have strayed to the technical aspects. We forgot to tell the story.”
Sadly, this is not the first time I have heard this about a failed analytics project. The business need was solid and validated. There was a key sponsor. The analysis was great. The insights were defined and the recommendations clear. But the communication was bad — there was no story.
Get Your Point Across
In the recently published book, The Power of People: Learn How Successful Organisations Use Workforce Analytics to Improve Performance, that I co-authored with Nigel Guenole and Sheri Feinzig, we define the Eight Step Model for Purposeful Analytics. That model is shown here, and explained in a recent LinkedIn article: the model has proven that each step is equally important to ensure analytics projects and exercises create value. Look at Step 7 — it’s about communication!
“All analytics projects have a moment of truth. This often happens as you communicate the outcomes of the project to the sponsor or other stakeholders, to get your point across. This is the moment when you are able to inform their decision making. Experienced practitioners and leaders know when they have been impactful and can tell whether their chosen method of communication has been effective.”
The Power of People – Nigel Guenole, Jonathan Ferrar & Sheri Feinzig
Part of getting your message across is about using storytelling. But what is it and how can you, as an HR professional or an analytics practitioner, create strong stories.
We know that storytelling has been the way information and lessons have been passed down for thousands of years. Setting aside the only gradual evolution of the written word, why is it that stories ‘work’?
Stories work as a means of communication because they create a connection for the listener. Whether it is visual, descriptive, through a connection to the characters, or a shared experience, a story resonates with people in a way that numbers, statistics and facts do not.
Storytelling in Analytics
During the research of The Power of People book, I found that a lot can be learned from academics and TED storytellers. Expert academics that have studied this topic include David Boje and Paul Yost and both of these provide abundant research and information to help structure stories. TED storytellers such as Andrew Stanton and Nancy Duarte are also great examples.
Storytelling, with emotional content and characters, is a great technique for ensuring that the data and insights from workforce analytics projects are memorable. In fact, studies have shown that listeners have better understanding and recall of a speaker’s key points when emotional content and character-driven stories are used. Paul Zak’s 2014 Harvard Business Review article “Why Your Brain Loves Storytelling” is a good first article to read on this topic.
Components of a Good Story
A good story, particularly when it comes to teaching or demonstrating a point, has several key components. The first of these is education versus fabrication. Whether a story rings true, even if its lesson is less significant, is directly related to how believable it is. A story that is fabricated or enhanced to make a lesson more dramatic is less believable and will alienate the audience.
When you’re formulating your story, pick the best parts and leave out the rest. A story should be simple – have a clear tale to tell and be stripped of extra detail that may be overwhelming to the audience. Remember when you are telling your story that your objective is not to baffle the audience, not to demonstrate your own knowledge and skill, but to convince them of a point. Consider every touch point in your story from the perspective of whether it adds to the lesson. If not, it may be best to leave that anecdote or fact out of the equation.
Other essential components of a story are the setting, in this case the context for what you’re about to discuss. Because we want people to connect, we need to give them a reason to care, something personal, intriguing; something that will create a bond between you and your audience.
Every great story must also have a conflict, a villain, a battle to be won. The resolution of your story then, or the lesson, will be a call to action to your audience that demonstrates how they can slay the beast, become the hero of their own story, by embracing the lesson you intended to teach.
And never forget that a picture is worth a thousand words. Yes, it’s a cliché, but just as you don’t want to overwhelm with facts and figures, also don’t overwhelm your audience with visual stimulation. Do though, if it exists, give them one key image that summarizes your idea and that they will be able to recall and think back on for inspiration.
And this is my key image. These are the principles for a good story (when using data) — my “back pocket” guide.
Storytelling is an art, it is a skill, but it is not one that we are born with. Rather, it is one that comes from careful thought, consideration for the audience, and an understanding that we must connect on a human level to create value. Storytelling is the key for taking Analytics out of the realm of theoretical math and science and making it a purposeful and accepted workplace tool.
Jonathan Ferrar (@jaferrar) is a respected consultant, speaker, influencer and author in HR Strategy, Workforce Analytics and the Future of Work. He advises clients globally on how to establish human resources strategies that will improve business performance and make HR more relevant. Based in the UK, he is listed as one of the global “Top HR Analytics Influencers” on LinkedIn and is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Chartered FCIPD). He previously lived in New York and has worked for IBM, Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and Lloyds Bank. He is co-author of the recently published book ‘The Power of People’ (Pearson FT Press, 2017).