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The Power of Data Storytelling

Does the name Ignaz Semmelweis ring any bells?

My guess is probably not, but I’m surprised that it doesn’t. Ignaz Semmelweis pioneered the discovery of the relationship between bad hygiene and increased childbirth mortality by discovering that doctors who washed their hands with a chlorine solution in between seeing patients could help reduce the mortality rate in childbed fever from 10% to nearly 1% in his clinics – a remarkable, yet simple discovery. With this achievement, one would think he would be celebrated among the likes of Penicillin founder Alexander Fleming, or Ronald Ross, who discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes.

So why has no one really heard of him?

Although he had discovered, at the time, a medical breakthrough, Ignaz failed to communicate his findings effectively to a sceptical medical community (can you believe it that some doctors were offended at the suggestion they should wash their hands). Therefore, his data and findings were ignored, his life saving ideas were rejected and he was discredited by his colleagues.

Unfortunately for Ignaz, things did not improve, he literally went insane trying to convince doctors to change their behaviour and sadly passed away in a public insane asylum before anyone picked up his ideas. Ignaz’s plight coined the phrase ‘The Semmelweis reflex’ -a metaphor meaning people instinctively avoid, reject and belittle any new evidence or knowledge that goes against their established beliefs, practices or value.

Organisations suffer from the Semmelweis reflex any time they refuse to accept facts and data and instead rely on prejudice or unfound convictions.

We all know that data has an important story to tell but relies on us to give it a clear and convincing voice.

So how can we communicate in an effective, persuasive way? One concept, whilst not a new one, is storytelling. Storytelling has been around for centuries and is an integral part of humanity. Politicians do it, you’ve all heard of TED Talks and if anyone’s read George Orwell’s book ‘Animal Farm’, it reflects the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Stalin Era of the Soviet Union, a story all told through using farm animals.

Research in neuroscience and psychology has shown that stories have a physical, mental and emotional impact on us and that evolution has hardwired our brains to respond to stories differently compared to all other communication methods. Neuroscientists have confirmed decisions are often based on emotion, not logic.

Emotion plays an essential role in helping our brains navigate alternatives and arrive at a timely decision. Neuroscientists also observed that more areas of the brain were stimulated when the audience absorbed a story compared to just two areas when it's processing detailed information like data and statistics.

Therefore, the idea and application of Data Storytelling is now recognised as an important skill to convey data insights and information for data driven decision making.

Data storytelling is the process of translating complex data analyses into layman's terms in order to influence a business decision or action. Data Storytelling is an extension of data visualisation and is a structured approach for communicating data insights with three key elements: Data, Visuals and Narrative.

Three key components for Data Storytelling

1. Narrative & Data - when narrative is coupled with data, it helps to explain to your audience what’s happening in the data and why a specific insight is important. Context and commentary are often needed to fully appreciate and understand an insight.

2. Visuals & Data - when visuals are applied to data, they can enlighten the audience to insights that they wouldn’t usually see with charts and graphs. Many interesting patterns and outliers in data would remain hidden in the rows and columns of data tables without the help of data visualisations.

3. Narrative & Visuals - when narrative and visuals are merged together, they can engage or even entertain an audience.

Change occurs when you combine the right visuals and narrative with the right data, creating a persuasive data story.

Perhaps if Ignaz Semmelweis was able to communicate his data with narrative and visuals, countless lives would have been saved over the 14 years he tried to communicate them.

Today, the most challenging aspect for analysts and those working with data is interpreting the breadth and depth of data and turning it into a compelling story that will persuade, influence and entertain audiences. This is a challenge that is no easy feat, but one that is crucial in developing data-driven organisations.

After all …. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller” —Steve Jobs

If you're interested in learning more about Data Storytelling and how to use it in your organisation, get in touch!