Narrative by Numbers

A masterclass in Data Storytelling by author and founder of Insight Agents, Sam Knowles

We live in a world of numbers, data and codes.

From the binary building blocks of 1’s and 0’s and nature’s favourite Fibonacci sequence to favourite takeaway items and mobile numbers. The world as we know it is swamped with digits just waiting to be used.

Narrative by Numbers teaches people how to effectively use numbers and statistics to convey memorable and compelling messages. It’s an essential tool in the world of marketing that helps businesses tell captivating stories in a world of ‘fake news’.

Here’s a story behind the numbers: at 9:30am on Friday 6th December, after grabbing our morning coffees, the 12-strong Catalyst group started their 3rd training session of the year – a ½ day masterclass with Experimental Psychologist and founder of Insight Agents, Sam Knowles. Lots of info there, right?

Sam kicked off the morning with a discussion surrounding our favourite numbers. One-by-one, we all said our favourite numbers and their stories. This set a precedent for the training; numbers are easy to remember and provide analytical satisfaction, however it’s the story behind them which people form emotional connections to. One can play with this psychological need for a rational/irrational balance to every story by manipulating the order these factors are received.

In 3 hours, the team completed a range of activities to unleash our analytical-side and merge the rational and creative sides of our brains. Sam talked about the myths surrounding creatives and scientists, more specifically how the historical separatism of scientists only having highly rational personas and ‘creatives’ only possessing emotional skills is inaccurate. His analogy of ‘creatives’ not knowing Newton’s 3 laws of motion, some of the most basic scientific laws in our society, being akin to asking a scientist if they can read, was particularly poignant.

Our first round of statistical stories was very insightful! Having done some research on companies beforehand and just been giving a crash course in what good stories achieve, we were then thrown headfirst into making a story of our own. Kirin chose ASOS and her story perfectly encapsulated Sam’s teachings.

“This is a story of 2’s.

ASOS came to the market in the year 2000, when people said online fashion wouldn’t work. They proved them wrong.

From a tiny start-up to the UK’s largest online fashion and beauty retailer with 20 million active customers, ASOS empowers 20 year olds to look and feel their best. ASOS have evolved and started a charity called the ASOS Foundation where they have supported over 20,000 young people. And the company isn’t even 20 yet.”

What makes a killer story? A killer stat…

To find your killer stat, you need to ask the right questions, such as “what are you trying to solve?” and “why is my data doing that?”. Once you understand what the data is saying, you need to use your words and data to create an emotional attachment to it. This is where the first of Sam’s 6 Golden rules come into play:

  1. Keep it simple

  2. Find and use relevant numbers

  3. Avoid false positives

This underpinned the main activity for the day. We split into three teams and were given three sets of raw data taken from the Office of National Statistics. Each dataset had two components and related to the most popular boys’ and girls’ names in England and Wales in 2018. Each team had 30 minutes to tell a story from the data, beginning with a killer stat to set the scene and grab attention. After analysing the data for anything that seemed interesting – outliers, major changes in name use across the ages of mothers, or similar names across boys and girls, we then discussed the ‘what’. What is the data telling us? What stories are emerging? Once you understand the story behind the data, you can begin to tell it to others. This is where the last three of Sam’s 6 Golden rules enter the frame:

  1. The curse of knowledge

  2. Know your audience

  3. Talk human

Our next task was to present this story to the rest of the group. After introducing the topic with our killer stat, we then had to communicate the compelling story behind our insights. With any story, the first hurdle is to communicate all, and only, the relevant information. Many people forget or don’t appreciate that they know more about their work than their recipients, and half a story will fall on deaf ears. It’s the same story with too much information – continuous partial attention which governs most of our day-to-day activities dictates that people will zone out after a while.

You may have noticed a rather satisfying trend with numbers throughout this blog, namely through the continued use of the numbers ‘6’, ‘3’ and 0.5.

0.5 can also be written as ‘½’, making it more appealing. What’s half of 6? 3. Double six? 12. Three lines of 6 statistics, all of which relate to the number 2? You get the picture – numbers can be used to

create a pattern.

It’s up to you to use them in the way that communicates best with your audience. You also get to choose and manipulate (slightly) the numbers to work with the pattern. For people like me, who did a Music degree but strongly disagree with the ‘creative’ label, working the numbers behind Friday’s narrative has been a highly satisfying project. Thank goodness this workshop happened on the day it did!

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