Data CAN tell a story

chart-990380_640Communications expert Andy Goodman has a great quote that I like to repeat when I want to drive home the power of storytelling in presentations or marketing (as opposed to merely presenting data).

Numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart. If you want to connect with your audience, tell them a story.

Goodman is right. Reams of data won’t necessarily move your audience to action. But a good story, well told, might.

There are times, though, when well-presented data can also tell a powerful story. Here are two examples:

Cards Against Humanity’s 2013 classroom shopping spree

In 2013, the popular adult party game company Cards Against Humanity donated a portion of its sales of a holiday promotion to support Donors Choose, an online charity that helps raise money for classroom projects in public schools. The effort netted over $100,000 for 299 different projects across the U.S.

To tell the tale of this success, Cards Against Humanity created a data-driven story online to illustrate how many students were touched by the donation, how the funds could be used and, in a clever twist, how else the funds could have been used for less productive and noble purposes.

In keeping with the irreverent tone of the company’s products, the story used data very in unexpected yet quite effective ways.

How many kids’ lives were touched by CAH’s generosity? A total of 38,318. But that number doesn’t mean much, until you put it in a different perspective.

How Cards Against Humanity took an unusual twist on data to show how many kids' lives were touched by their 2013 donation to Donors Choose.
How Cards Against Humanity took an unusual twist on data to show how many kids’ lives were touched by their 2013 donation to Donors Choose.

Another example of using data to illustrate the impact of their gift compares what a certain dollar amount would buy for school supplies as opposed to military expenditures.

One example of how Cards Against Humanity used data to show the impact of their 2013 donation to Donors Choose.
One example of how Cards Against Humanity used data to show the impact of their 2013 donation to Donors Choose.

Since 2013, Cards Against Humanity has continued to prove itself as a company with a social conscience. This year, the company donated a portion of proceeds from its Eight Sensible Gifts for Hanukkah promotion to provide a week’s vacation for employees of CAH’s printer in China.

The fallen of World War II

Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during World War II, is reported to have said, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” There’s no proof Stalin actually ever said that, but when you consider the number of Soviet soldiers who were killed or injured during World War II, it seems plausible.

When we are confronted by staggering numbers — whether deaths, dollars or deficits — it is difficult for our minds to grasp the enormity of them. In Stalin’s day, “a million” may have been unfathomable for most to think about. But we now talk about people, dollars and budgets by the billions or trillions, which makes the numbers even more difficult to understand.

Last spring, Neil Halloran, a documentary filmmaker and data visualization expert, posted his video The Fallen of World War II on Vimeo. The 18-minute video uses data and visualization to put into context the number of World War II casualties by country. Halloran uses the data to tell a powerful story — one that could not be told by traditional storytelling alone.

These are just two examples of how data, when presented well, can help to tell a story. I hope these examples illustrate how the two — data and storytelling — can work together to connect with your audience.

Do you have any examples of powerful storytelling by data? I’d love to know about them. Please share in the comments.

 

 

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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