Cut a long story smart: When data meets storytelling

There are two words we hear more and more in the era of modern marketing communications: data and storytelling. At face value, they seem like very separate entities. But can they be combined to make marketing communications more effective? Or should numbers be kept to spreadsheets and out of the company narrative?

At the W2O EMEA Marketing Science Summit in Zurich, Switzerland, experts from healthcare, data science, and communications debated the trends shaping the healthcare communications industry. One of those experts, Dr Sam Knowles – a brand storyteller who strengthens corporate narratives with data and statistics – took some time out speak with W2O’s Fenna Gloggner to share his valuable knowledge on how data and storytelling are two sides of the same coin. “It may seem like fire and ice,” he says, “but data helps companies tell more powerful, purposeful, and fundamentally more human stories.”  Here is what else he told her:

How important are narratives to companies?

Very. After all, we navigate the world using stories and story structure. When we were read stories as children, we looked for heroes and heroines, growing through their trials and tribulations. It’s just the same in the boardroom as it is in kindergarten; it’s just a little more sophisticated. Corporate narratives are often driven by numbers, and this makes them ultimately more powerful when connected to human stories.

“The pharma industry often suffer from a cognitive bias that is known as ‘the curse of knowledge”

What should you look out for when making your own narrative by numbers?

There are two key skills to making compelling narratives from numbers. The first being the ability to extract genuine insights from a mass of data. The second is using those data-driven insights as foundations of more powerful and purposeful storytelling. These two domains of thought are often thought of as opposites – because people often go down one track or the other, first in education and later in their careers. This comes from a popular misunderstanding that people are either right-brained or left-brained, when in fact we’re all both-brained. It’s not arts versus science. It’s art plus science – a simple equation: Stories built on data are more powerful than stories about data.

What advice would you give to people who are intimated by Big Data?

It’s no secret that organisations are faced with more and more data every day. By the year 2023, we will have created 175 zettabytes of data and by 2027 be we will have created 350 zettabytes – or 350 trillion Gigabytes. Our data smog will have doubled in less than four years. But, just because Big Data is capitalised, it doesn’t mean we should be intimidated by it. It’s all about finding and using the right data sets and not being overwhelmed by all the data on offer.

Marketing communications in pharma have historically suffered because of this. Often, those leading the discipline have used metrics that aren’t about ROI. Instead they’re softer metrics such as brand equity, and traditionally those measurements have not been closely connected to financial performance. My sense is that, for marketing communications to be more effective, the type of data we use in our storytelling needs to be simple and precise. For example, if you squeeze six different percentages onto the first slide of your presentation, you’re going to confuse people and they’ll be looking at their phones before you know it.

Using data effectively is an act of empathy and human understanding. By that I mean, you really need to know your audience, get inside their heads. You need to know what’s going to motivate them. Always consider what’s going to grab their attention and think how likely it is that they’re going to become very bored very quickly.

“The analysis of data gives you information, but information per se is not an insight”

Can data be used as an insight?

Data and insight are intrinsically connected, but they’re not the same thing. The analysis of data gives you information, but information per se is not an insight. To my mind, an insight is a profound and deep understanding of someone, something, a topic, or an issue that unlocks potential to do something new. So, raw data, data dumps, screenshots of dashboards – none of those are insights or deep understanding. But, a profound observation that’s expressed in a sentence or two that enables you to say, ‘gosh I didn’t realise that’? That’s an insight. Sometimes insights can seem like statements of the obvious. Often, that’s because they are so profound. You can’t believe someone hasn’t already pointed it out.

As Nate Silver says in The Signal and the Noise, “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.”

That’s why it’s important to differentiate insight problems and analytical problems. Analytical problems are like mathematical challenges that can be solved by the force of intellect and putting in the time. Insight problems aren’t like that. Instead of putting time in, once you’ve filled the hopper of your subconscious mind with stimulus, you simply have to take time out. And by that, I mean, deliberately stepping away from the problem. By forcing yourself away from the problem rather than trying to say, ‘what’s the insight?’, you’re allowing your subconscious to wander and try all kinds of interesting mashups of the stimulus you’ve taken on board.

So, allow your mind the time to use its brilliant combinatorial skills. That might mean walking around a market, or even going to a Zumba class. In a high-pressure business environment, taking time out might seem to be impossible; trust me, I get it. Thankfully, even doing timesheets or filling out expenses claim forms will give your subconscious time for this important process of joining old and old together and making something new.

And if you think, ‘hang on, I think I’ve worked something out here,’ pressure test it with colleagues, with clients, with people who know everything about your subject, and with people who know nothing about your subject. This is the only way to test if your insight is truly insightful.

Are there any potential pitfalls when distilling insights from data?

Yes. It’s very easy to get side-tracked by an outlier. The more data sets there are, the more we interrogate them, the more we try to draw them together. It’s tempting to see signals that the data is telling us something unique and profound when really, it’s just a distraction. What’s encouraging is that the tools, techniques, and software are all getting more sophisticated. So, we’re able – through smart application of search and by getting the right data sets – to ignore those that aren’t relevant to us.

On the other hand, it’s just as easy to ignore outliers that could be telling us something meaningful. So, don’t dismiss them straight away. Ask the right questions, then walk away from the problem and let your subconscious mind wander.

Do you have any advice for those that work in pharma specifically?

The pharma business – one that is driven by science and hypothesis testing – is often very technical and full of jargon. This makes it very hard for those working in pharma to realise that they suffer from a cognitive bias that is known as ‘the curse of knowledge’. This is simply that when you know a lot about a subject, it’s really hard to imagine that everyone else doesn’t have that same level of knowledge. Academics, lawyers, and government officials are also guilty of this.

That’s right – being too smart can be a hindrance! But how do we get around this? Well, it’s not about dumbing down your data to create narrative that is incredibly simplistic. It’s about framing it in a way that is easy to understand among internal and external audiences alike. One that doesn’t give too much backstory, that doesn’t bore people into submission with endless statistics, but actually gets people to say “That’s really interesting. How did you come by that? Tell me more.”

If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Fundamentally, using numbers in your company narrative – whether that’s holding your own in the C-suite, field sales representatives talking at a congress of GPs or pharmacists, or creating an external marketing campaign – is all about human understanding and talking in way that resonates with your audience.

After all, your audience – those whose decisions you are looking to influence – make their decisions emotionally and justify them rationally, not the other way around. That’s why stories and analytics must have equal influence on your narrative. A balance of emotional, powerful and personal stories backed up by rational thought and data-driven evidence is, to my mind, the only true way to create a meaningful narrative that’s truly insightful.

Sam Knowles was speaking with Fenna Gloggner, senior group director of analytics & insights at W2O.

Sam is the author of the book Narrative by Numbers, published by Routledge to critical acclaim in 2018 – visit to find out more.