catalyst: facts vs. stories

Today's catalyst is one that sparked the interest of our Storytelling Coach, Julia Wheeler – because, for an article about presenting numbers, the emphasis is very much on words. Or rather, stories.


Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel looks at a problem that's increasingly relevant to leaders, managers and business owners: how to present data-heavy information in a way that motivates and inspires – and avoids the trap of Death By Powerpoint.

Just add data?

With increasing access to detailed sets of data on everything from staff engagement to customer behaviour, it can be tempting to rely on figures when it's time to present the findings.

After all, if the data has led to a clear conclusion about the best way forward, it seems logical that the people who'll be implementing them – or affected by them – will want to understand the rationale.

This article cautions against that as a strategy. In Samuel's words, 

"You’re not trying to subdue your enemy through the sheer volume of data you can bring to bear on your argument; you’re using data strategically, when it provides clear and concrete evidence for the story you’re telling."

So when planning a presentation that's going to include a lot of rich data, there are some simple tips to follow. The most important of which is: forget the data, focus on the story.

Facts that don't distract

With a clear narrative for the presentation, it's then time to weave in the hard info which explains why you've reached the conclusion you have. Samuel recommends several strategies for achieving this effectively, including:

  • Checking carefully that the data you're presenting will definitely be understood by your audience
  • Choosing the way you present data with care – bar chart? Infographic? Venn diagram? The joke at the top of this piece wouldn't work if the data had been presented differently…
  • Interspersing data-heavy slides with words and images
  • Illustrating key figures with relatable, human examples
  • Sticking to simple statements that are most effective when they include just one key statistic.

Click here for the full article.

Over to you

Have you needed to make a data-heavy presentation recently; do you agree with the strategy Samuel recommends? Perhaps you've been on the receiving end, in which case you'll have an idea of what makes data memorable, and what had you switching off? Come over to twitter and let us know if this has helped shift your thinking on how this can be effective.

Time to hone your storytelling?

If you're ready to upgrade your leadership style and learn the art of telling stories to influence and inspire the people you lead, we have a coaching programme just for you. You'll work directly with Julia Wheeler and our communications specialist Richard Fallon, to build your toolkit of ways to engage and motivate an audience, and build a leadership legacy that's inspiring and impactful. Click here to find out more.