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  • Emma

Humans are story tellers.

Humans are wired for storytelling. It's a fundamental part of how we process and retain information. When faced with a large amount of data, our brains naturally try to find patterns and connections in order to make sense of it all. Stories provide us with a framework for organizing details and understanding complex information, helping us to remember and comprehend data by giving it context and meaning.

Origins of storytelling

Storytelling has been present in all cultures throughout history. It is a way for people to share their experiences, ideas, and values, and it has played a crucial role in the development and transmission of information over the centuries.

The origins of storytelling can be traced back to the earliest human societies, where stories and tales were told to pass down knowledge and learning from one generation to the next. These stories often took the form of myths, legends, and folktales. They were used to explain events like natural phenomena, teach moral lessons, and simply entertain.

With the invention of writing, storytelling took on a new shape and became even more widespread. The written word allowed stories to be recorded and shared more easily and made it possible for stories to be preserved and handed down to future generations. This led to the development of many different literary traditions, such as epics, poems, plays, and novels.

Today, storytelling continues to be an important part of the human experience. It remains a powerful way for people to connect with each other and share experiences, and pass on their recorded history, culture, and values.

Extracting the narrative

Sharing stories using verbal or written tools works quite well, and we are capable of retaining most of it. But when we are presented with a large amount of data, our brains automatically start looking for ways to organize and make sense of it.

We are wired to look for relationships between different pieces of information to try and find the underlying story. This process is called "narrative extraction" and it is an essential part of how our brains work to understand and recall information.

If stories help us to retain information, narrative extraction supports our understanding of the details. When data is presented using a narrative, it becomes much easier to remember than when it is presented in a raw, unconnected form. Stories derived from data provide a framework for organizing and extracting information to make it more meaningful and memorable.

Stories are useful when processing things that we hear or read, but when faced with detailed visual information like data, charts, and statistics, humans don’t work quite the same as a computer does. We may jump to incorrect assumptions, miss connections, or make errors in the way we interpret the information.

But why are we not meant to consume large amounts of data like a robot?

The simple answer is that our brains are not built for that kind of processing. Unlike a computer, the human brain is not designed to handle vast amounts of raw data. Instead, it excels at connecting threads and finding similarities. For these reasons, data visualization tools are highly effective at allowing our brains to identify relational content, see areas of continuity, and link items together.

“Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.” - Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

Another reason that stories are important for data comprehension is that they provide a clear context. When data is presented without context, it can be difficult to understand and make sense of, but when it is embedded in a story, it becomes much more meaningful. The story provides the necessary background information and connections that help us to understand the data.

In addition to helping with retention and comprehension, stories are important for engaging the audience. When data is presented in a narrative form, it is more interesting and engaging than when it is presented in a dry, factual manner. This is because stories have the ability to captivate and hold our attention, they draw us in and make us want to learn more.

Communicating a data story

But how do we go about building a narrative that supports a data story? Cleary our brains are capable of interpreting large quantities of information to segment and organize it, but supporting it with a narrative makes it even easier to understand and retain.

To communicate a clear meaning and define the information shared, there are a few key points to incorporate when telling a data story -

  • Identify the key message or takeaway that you want to communicate

This will be the central theme of your story and will help to guide the rest of your narrative.

  • Select the data that is most relevant

You don't want to overwhelm your audience with too much data, so only include the most important and relevant information.

  • Organize data into a logical sequence

This might involve creating charts, graphs, or other visual aids to help illustrate key points of your message.

  • Add context and background information

This helps the audience understand the significance of the data. It might involve explaining the sources of the data, the methodology used to collect it, or any other relevant information.

  • Use storytelling techniques to bring data to life.

Use descriptive language, add dialogue, or create characters to help illustrate important points or create a scenario.

By following these steps, you can create a compelling data story that will engage your audience and help them to process and remember the information that is being presented.

“The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it – is going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.” - Hal Varian, Chief Economist, Google.

Converting data into a story

Taking information and converting it into a story is important because it helps to make the information more relatable and easier to understand for the audience. Data, by itself, can be difficult to interpret, especially when confronted with rows of numbers or statistics.

But when that same data is reframed and delivered in the form of a story, it helps the audience to see the bigger picture and understand the significance of the information.

Another reason why converting dry data into a story is important is that it can help to make the information more memorable. When data is presented in a narrative form, it is more likely to stick in the minds of the audience and be retained for longer. This can be especially useful in situations where the information is complicated or technical, and needs to be understood and recalled by the audience.

In addition, turning data into a story can bring an emotional resonance to the information. By weaving the data into a narrative, it is possible to show the human impact of the information and make it relatable. Helping to create a deeper connection with the audience and make the message more compelling.

Stories are an important way to make data accessible, memorable, and meaningful for the audience. It is a powerful tool for communicating ideas and facts in a way that is engaging and relatable.

"You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan.” - Margaret Atwood

In conclusion

Stories are an essential part of how humans understand, process, and retain information. They help us to make sense of complex data by providing a framework for organizing and understanding it. When faced with a large amount of data, the underlying story helps us to better manage details and presents us with a structure or a format. By building a narrative to support a data story, we can engage our audience and make the information more impactful and significant.


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