Story Telling (2): The Basics of Story Telling

In my previous blog “Story telling: What is it?” I discussed how a bunch of numbers can be transformed into a story. But what is the foundational principle that turns those numbers into a story? How do we go from numbers and graphs to a story supported by charts?

Here is an example. Our research shows that our client’s organic product has a market share of 22.5% in the East and 43% in the West. We further note that our market share is growing in the East but the growth has been slow – just 3.5 over the past 10 years. Given this data, a standard presentation may go something like this:


Our market share is 22.5% in the East and 43% in the West. This is a statistically significant difference. We are twice as strong in the West as in the East.


Although our market share has been gradually increasing in the East over the past ten years, the increase has been small. In fact, the year over year increase in the East is not statistically significant. Our strongest market is still the West.


Did we tell a story? In my view, no, we have not told a story. The presentation simply states the facts:

1.    We are twice as strong in the West.
2.    We are growing very slowly in the East.
3.    The growth in the East is very small, probably not large enough to take note.
4.    The West continues to be our strongest market.

While the presentation identifies all the dots, it does not connect them. It does not say why we are strong in the West. It does not say why we might be growing in the East. It does not suggest what we can do to affect the market. It does not say what might happen in the future. It does not say what the likely scenario is for the future. We can make the charts prettier, we can add stunning infographics but, as long as we confine our presentation to numerical facts, we are not telling a story. Presentation B below uses the same data.


In markets where consumers are health conscious, organic products such as our brand do very well. In the West where there is a high degree of health consciousness, our brand does twice as well as it does in the East.  

You will also note that in the East, where there has been an increasing health consciousness in recent years, our brand share has been steadily increasing. Current demographic trends show that our population will get increasingly older. As older people also tend to be more health conscious, we have a reasonable expectation our share will continue to grow in the East. We can see an acceleration of this trend in the past 5 or 6 years.  

Presentation “B” goes beyond research numbers. It suggests what might be driving the numbers. It connects the dots so possible causes and potential future trends are made more visible. As a result, numbers and graphs are not simply numbers and graphs designed to make the presentation look credible and pretty. They are the basis for developing a story. This is what the story now is:

1.    Health consciousness drives our share of the market.
2.    We are doing well in the West because the West is health conscious.
3.    There is an increasing number of older people who are health conscious in the East.
4.    This is reflected in our gradually increasing share in the East.
5.    We can expect the above trend to continue.

Another important difference is that the story is strongly supported by the adjoining charts in Presentation “B”. When we say the brand is that twice as strong in the West than in the East, we can clearly see that in the graph. When we say that the brand has been growing steadily, especially over the past 5 or 6 years, one look at the chart confirms it. Headlines also reinforce the story. (This interpretation goes beyond what we found in our research. The assumption here is that the presenter is not simply speculating but knows facts other than what was derived from current research and is relating them to current data and not making unwarranted generalizations unrelated to available evidence.) The charts add credibility to the narrative by being cleaner and easier to read. Headlines guide the audience to an instant understanding of the concepts presented in the charts.

In Presentation “A”, charts support the narrative, but not very strongly. Presentation “A” can be done by anyone who has access to data. Presentation “B” requires that we look at the numbers, try to understand why they are the way they are and what they mean to us. It requires that we examine the charts to see how well they support our story.
This is how we changed the charts to support the story better:

1.    We changed the bar chart comparing shares in the East and the West to depict thinner bars so we naturally compare the height rather than the area of the bars. We quickly see that the West’s market share is about twice that of the East.
2.    We changed the trend chart from a bar chart to a scatter plot. This once again showed more clearly how share has been growing over the years in the East.
3.    We made the colours muted when we revised the graphs. The charts now look simpler and yet more sophisticated because they support the narrative rather than pulling the audience away from the narrative.

Presentation “A” may, at best, make you look like any other researcher. Presentation “B”, on the other hand, establishes you as an expert on the subject bringing outside knowledge to bear on what the numbers say.

This then is the crux of story telling: Go beyond the immediate data. Find the connections. Connect the dots. Reinforce the narrative with headlines and charts. Deliberately design the charts so they visually support the story.

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