Why Story Will Always Beat Statistics

Data is not fact and fact is often just a hypothesis anyway.

We humans design how data is created and we humans are the ones who interpret data and draw conclusions from it.

Therefore, data will always be inherently fallible – Gerry McGovern

Many of our organisations attempt to illustrate the achievement of their purpose through data and the production of statistics.

We sell this many products, or save that many lives or house this many people.

Then we wonder why the public doesn’t understand what we do, or why the people who work for us have become disengaged from our purpose.

Despite living in a time where entire industries are being disrupted through stories , we still put our faith in statistics.

Because it’s better to convey our message with simple facts right?

The problem is, data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

The astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson was reminded of this lesson last week after tweeting that more people die in everyday circumstances like medical errors than in mass shootings.

As he noted in his Facebook apology , his intention to point out that more common, but milder causes of death trigger less response from us than events like mass shootings wasn’t welcome when there was another, more compelling story trending.

Telling the story through data alone, factually correct or not, doesn’t always win us fans.

I’ve been reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. In it he shows how novelists answer the challenge of “grabbing and keeping the attention of other people’s brains”.

I was struck by his point that most successful stories begin with a moment of change. In fact, all stories are change. These changeful moments. or the threat of change, are so important that they always appear in the first few sentences. His examples show that authors as diverse as J.K Rowling, Albert Camus and Karl Marx all use the same technique.

It’s because they know that we find change interesting – it forces us to listen, and it forces us to act.

Do our organisational stories begin with change?

As a simple test I checked out 10 websites of social purpose organisations and none of their recent press releases or blogs started out that way. It was all about how much investment had been attained,  or the £££ difference that was being made by their actions. Data, data everywhere but no decent stories.  No threat of change, no questions, no meaning.

Today’s organisations simply won’t be heard unless they’re telling good stories. Those of us who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.

One of the reasons I try to blog regularly is to get better at telling stories. The simple act of writing a short 600 word piece still forces you into a format of:

  • Beginning with a change or provocation
  • Asking a dramatic or interesting question
  • Crafting an ending that attempts to create some meaning

Fortunately this isn’t a skill only attainable by a few of us – all of us are good storytellers.

Storytelling is something we all do naturally, starting at a very young age. As human beings, we know that stories are what life is made of, but when we get up in the morning and go to work,  we seem to forget this.

In modern organisations storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level, it should permeate the whole system. It’s no longer the preserve of comms teams. In fact I’d suggest that if it’s your comms team who is telling the story , you have a problem.

If everybody feeds the story then the story feeds the people. Perhaps every employee should be encouraged to write one blog or post one video every month, encouraging us all to share stories?

This isn’t time wasted. Stories help us persuade people to take action.

We can all become better storytellers , and through that help our organisations become better and achieve our purpose.

Show me the data? Actually, don’t.

The story is the change.

The power is in the story first, the statistic second.



If you don’t have time to read the book from Will Storr you can listen to his TEDx talk here


12 thoughts on “Why Story Will Always Beat Statistics

  1. I love your post so much and I completely agree. My company is so focused on the data, even after our million dollar rebrand, our tagline focused on the high quality data we provide and the deeper analytics and data modeling techniques we offer clients. But as a marketer, we need to focus on better storytelling, by putting the data into context, and not just listing random (what we think are impressive) data points, will emotively appeal to our customers and hopefully inspire them to take action. So thank you for the great reminder!!

    1. Thank you – and it’s just a reminder as you say. Sometimes we can let the data and technology distract us from that. We need to remind ourselves that there’s a human at the centre of that story.

    1. Thanks Barry. My problem is benchmarks never tell the whole story. It’s the same as industry awards, you’re often left with loads of questions, why? what happened? how? We just need to be wary about misinterpreting their numerical certitude for factual completeness

  2. A good story Paul. I’ve always told stories. Whether they are all true is for others to decide. Seriously authenticity is an important part of story telling. Yes our stories might sometimes be “tall” but they should be true. I’ve found that as I have got older I tell more stories. Partly because I can’t remember the data and partly because I enjoy it. Surely thus is the point. We remember stories more than data. And we remember them more if we enjoy them or perhaps they evoke a strong emotion. After all we are creatures of emotion. Thanks again.

  3. “I’ve always told stories. Whether they are all true is for others to decide”. Love that Tom! I guess stories can be told for good or ill – which is why I think ‘social’ organisations need to be better storytellers

  4. Fantastic blog, and totally true. It is stories that stick with us, and stories that change attitudes and drive actions. We spend a lot of our time trying to get small charities to recognise this, whilst at the same time trying to do better ourselves.

  5. Great blog, we’ve got to start changing the conversation about what being successful means. From accruing money, stocks, size and pace or just any old thing that can be numerisized, to something much more meaningful for living and breathing societies. Stories are the best device we got for that.

  6. Good to read this again Paul. Having just read the Will Storr book….your copy in fact…I think you’ve summed up it’s most important point perfectly.

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