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What do we talk about when we talk about data?

Those who espouse only evidence—without narratives about real people—struggle to control the debate. Typically, they lose.*

This week I've been talking to data analysts about storytelling. There's a significant body of opinion out there that says people grasp facts more readily if they’re presented with them as a story. A proper story with narrative thread and shape and continuity. When we're trying to make sense of complex reality, we prefer to be presented with a themed, thought-through, whole as opposed to random facts scattered in our general direction in no particular order. We want a beginning, a middle and an end.

This should be as true for NHS data as it is for anything else. In fact, you could argue that it’s even more true. There are lots of folk out there (managers and clinicians) who need to make decisions about resources. And they need data to help them with those decisions. But we know that a lot of them are uncomfortable with data. So if we present them with only tables and charts, containing seemingly disconnected random facts, then they’ll not really get it. Our data analysis—no matter how good it is—won’t help them with their understanding of the big picture.

But if only we could package our data analysis into a story, then this hurdle might be surmounted. Stories are full of words, not numbers. And everyone gets words. Problem solved.

So this got me wondering whether there's a logical conclusion to draw from this: we need to teach number-crunchers how to tell stories. If data analysts can learn this skill then they'll be able to get their data messages across much more effectively.

And indeed there are teachable skills and techniques associated with story-telling. I started jotting them down. We could teach how to structure a narrative, how to use analogy to make difficult concepts easier to understand, how to adapt language for different situations and audiences (although Barbara Minto’s point—in her book The Pyramid Principle—about writing style being something you either have or don't have by the time you finish school did sound a quiet warning bell at this stage).

The warning bell sounded louder, however,when I considered the next point. What’s harder to teach is the actual story itself. If you’re going to tell a story you don't just have to know how to tell a story; you've also got to know what the story actually is. You need a plot.

And this is where my idea came undone. It came undone because in my experience the number-crunchers rarely know what the plot is. Not because they're too stupid, or uninterested. No. They don't know what the plot is because they are often secreted away in some distant annexe of the organisation. They are disconnected from the people who do know what’s going on (the managers and clinicians). There's a physical separation from the coal face that prevents meaningful dialogue between analysts and managers. This physical separation particularly affects informal dialogue ("corridor conversations") which is often the most fruitful in terms of deepening people's understanding of the issues.

Dialogue. There it is. The word "dialogue". That's when an even bigger hurdle reared up in front of me. It's not just the analysts who are unaware of what the plot is. The managers and clinicians don't know the plot either. The way we find out what the plot is is by putting the two together. Dialogue. Dialogue between the number-crunchers and the decision-makers.

We need to do dialogue first. Then we can get the plot. Then—and only then—we can start to tell the story.

[29 June 2012]

* Here's the Scholarly Kitchen blog article that contains that marvellous quotation.


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