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

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

People don’t resist change, they resist bullshit – Peter Vander Auwera

A friend of mine told me last week that their organisation was about to begin its third change management programme in just seven years.

Each of the two preceding programmes had a number of things in common:

  • People were unclear why a programme was needed in the first place.
  • They had – seemingly – never been evaluated. Neither demonstrated what had been achieved or learned.
  • They had all been accompanied by processes, tools and practices that had long since been abandoned.

“The only thing that really stuck,” he said ” were the buzzwords”.

In his book Business Bullshit, Andre Spicer looks at how organisations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit. He takes us back to the birth of the management change movement – the 1960s and 1970s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’ and ‘being their best self’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which was needed to pitch themselves to clients.

Quite coincidentally the book I read before this was Selfie by Will Storr, about our culture of personal narcissism and self-obsession.

Events in both books intersect at the Esalen Institute, in California, where people get in touch with their hidden selves through group therapy and sensitivity training. Esalen gave birth to the dubious Human Potential Movement (simply believe in yourself more and you too can be Beyonce, fail and you simply didn’t want it enough.)

I’d never before made this connection between the personal self-improvement movement and the world of corporate change.

Both philosophies propose that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future. And by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be realised.

Arguably, our obsession with business change is as much a symptom of modern narcissism as is the fact we take 1 million selfies each day.

Your change vision, like that perfectly framed Instagram pose,  is bullshit – and everybody knows it.

Do You Really Need Another Change Programme?

Change is not about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. Nobody can possibly know what will happen when you change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

Spicer maintains that today bureaucracy comes cloaked in the language of change with our organisations full of people whose job is to create change for no real reason.

Change, both personal and corporate, simply isn’t always needed.

Knowing the problems you need to fix and the ones you don’t is a key advantage.

Crucially, the evidence base for change is often suspect. In his book Will Storr argues that the origins of the whole self-improvement industry were founded on very shaky evidence from the start – with scientists’ less than enthusiastic findings being airbrushed from a final report.

Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

How To Avoid Corporate Narcissism

Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed.  That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.

Perhaps we need:

  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing little and fast through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until we have evidence that it works.

And that’s led me to consider the failure rate of change programmes and the impossibly high goals that organisations set.

The weight loss industry is booming – and so is obesity.

The change industry is booming – and productivity is tanking.

  • Maybe your organisation is unique because of its flaws.
  • Maybe you don’t need to follow a consultant led template of what great looks like.

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of perfection.

It means recognising you’ll always be flawed – and there’s a beauty in that.

I’m never going to be Elon Musk. Your organisation is never going to be Apple.

Maybe you’re meant to be that way.

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