FEATURE11 February 2016

Tell me a story

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Behavioural science Features Impact UK

Avoid weighing down clients with data. It’s time to start storytelling to make sure insight is acted upon, says Anthony Tasgal, author of The Storytelling Book

Storytelling crop

No-one in business has enough time. Buyers of research are deluged with presentations; with ‘big data’ promising more information and even more material to ingest. We live in a DRIP world – ‘data rich, insight poor’.

The industries that are responsible for generating information, knowledge and insight are still churning out what I call ‘data freighters’ – super-tankers of often undigested, and indigestible, material. We all instinctively know this is compounding the problem for the precious, but over-taxed, attentional resources of ever-demanding clients. How did we allow this to happen and, more importantly, how can we turn back the data freighters?

A large part of the problem is ‘arithmocracy’ – a system based on the worship of numbers as gods, and an unshakeable, if unproven, belief in safety in numbers.

We see it encroaching across much of our lives: school league tables, goals for NHS waiting times, and police crime-rate targets, to mention but a few. In our world, we see it in the ceaseless onslaught of ubiquitous and tyrannical metrics, which reduce as much as enlighten.

We have become enslaved to a form of marketing-as-science known as ‘physics envy’; the belief that humans are like atoms – predictable, controllable and susceptible to solely mathematical analysis and arid, rational and scientific presentation. It is as if we are guided by the spirit of Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind, from Hard Times: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

The deep-seated fear that ‘somewhere there is more data I could have examined before I made that decision’ needs to be resisted.

The research industry hasn’t got to grips with the fact that it should frame itself as part of the communications and ideas business, rather than the data-transmission industry. Instead of aspiring to the wrong sciences – mathematics, economics and physics – it needs to accept that it is at the heart of the persuasion and influence industry.

It therefore needs to look to biology, psychology and complexity, and abandon its worship of arid rationalism.

From information to insight

As a long-term provider, I believe insight remains the prime currency of our business. Information (or data) is merely fuel for the ‘insightment’ engine – it depends on the ability to perceive new and unexpected connections. My favoured distinction is this: information is to be collected; insight is to be connected.

As a card-carrying member of the Worshipful Tribe of Behavioural Economists, I want to advise the research industry and their clients that human behaviour does not follow the reductionist principles of information processing.

Instead, behavioural economics (BE) shows us – reminds us, really – that humans are not rational information processors. As various governments have discovered in embracing ‘nudge units’, telling people doesn’t work, because humans do not merely receive transmitted information and act accordingly (anyone have children?).

In my book, I refer to another term I find helpful. By analogy with carnivores and herbivores, I like to think of consumers (a word I would happily banish from the marketing lexicon) as ‘semavores’, devourers of meaning.

The research world – clients and suppliers – should be in the business of constructing and delivering meaning. When it comes to human communication, meaning beats truth; so researchers need to be less frightened of the nightmare of imprecision and more attuned to unearthing and sharing universal human truths, plus the insight and imagination that create meaning.

Emotional storytelling

If numbers numb us, stories stir us. They translate information into emotion. Stories are patterns with meaning that the brain is naturally hard-wired to respond to, whether we are aware of it or not. Neurochemically, there is even evidence that stories make us care, create empathy and build trust by generating oxytocin, a hormone associated with human bonding and empathy. Here are three tips (there are 24 in the book) to help make presentations and communications more effective and memorable:

  • If stories are patterns with meaning, and the brain values pattern, make sure your presentations have a sense of deep structure and coherence. Find your golden thread: it may be the journey to and from your central insight; or an argument or angle you are sustaining – but ensure there is something for the brain to hold onto, rather than just ‘one chart after another’.
  • We are designed to respond to surprise, an important emotion because it alerts us to what is evolutionarily relevant rather than what is just more of the same. Prioritise what will be emotionally surprising, because this is likely to be meaningfully memorable to your audience.
  • Massage, don’t message. Our business is obsessed with messages and all the rational, didactic baggage they carry. Far better to approach a communication from the point of view of personal meaning, and understand how to massage the self-worth and impression-management of your audience. What will make them feel good about themselves, their role and their outcomes?

Oh, and there is evidence that storytelling not only makes your work more effective, but it makes you ever so slightly happier into the bargain.

Anthony Tasgal is author of The Storytelling Book – finding the golden thread in your presentations, published by LID Publishing