OPINION5 December 2013

The other side of the story


Storytelling is an effective means of conveying information – but the most effective stories aren’t always the most accurate ones. This is something researchers and brand owners need to bear in mind, says Colin Strong.

But storytelling has its downsides too. It can be argued that, sometimes, the strength of a story can actually become a weakness for those who buy into it – becoming accepted wisdom, which is then not questioned, even when data starts to suggest that a different story may be more useful.

“Humans are creatures that like to rationalise, to make sense out of the world, and to create order and meaning. But this is not always done in a consistent way”

One of the key traps to be wary of is that stories represent a particular interpretation of events (or, in our case, data). Humans are creatures that like to rationalise, to make sense out of the world, and to create order and meaning. But this is not always done in a consistent way. This is nicely illustrated by a classic experiment in which participants were shown two pictures of different people of the opposite sex. Participants had to choose which they considered more attractive. The experimenter then took the photos away and showed them their ‘choice’ a minute or two later, asking them to explain their selection. Little did the participant know that the experimenter had switched the photos and they were now busy explaining their choice but for the wrong photo, completely oblivious to the fact they were finding a story to fit the photo they had rejected.

Reader beware!

While we are born storytellers, the wise recipient of any story will realise that this is an interpretation of the data – of the situation – and it should remain open to other perspectives. Who is the storyteller and how are they framing the issue? Are there implicit assumptions running through it that we should question? Surely the reader needs to understand the author’s view of the world – their personal philosophy – to appreciate the nature of the framing they will, inevitably, be applying.

People have a tendency to prefer particular types of story. So, for example, because we dislike uncertainty we will seek out stories that we can easily comprehend. We will therefore be attracted to stories which reference a framework of thinking we are familiar with – even when more complex interpretations have greater explanatory value.

“The lasting legacy of a tale well told is that we tend to then seek out information which is consistent with the story we’ve been told”

We like our stories to be vivid and engaging. But we know that the more readily something is brought to mind, the more likely it is to influence us. We are all aware of the power of an anecdote from personal experience, or the recounting of a tale from a focus group. Again, the more colourful stories can win out at the expense of the more worthy, and possibly more valid, tale.

Indeed, the lasting legacy of a tale well told is that we tend to then seek out information which is consistent with the story we’ve been told. And when we encounter new, challenging information, we tend to interpret it in a way that is self-serving. So we will often ‘fix’ our stories alarmingly quickly.

Clearly there is a need for vigilance when listening to stories. The astute listener needs to be good at questioning the assumptions underlying the story, including the outlook of the person that is telling it. And, therefore, storytellers need to be in a position where they are able to explain their own assumptions and the philosophies that drive the stories they tell – which is not always a given. For sometimes the storyteller is an unwitting participant in someone else’s story.

Colin Strong is MD of GfK Technology UK


10 years ago

Colin, as ever, you take a wonderfully contrarian approach to received wisdom - and inject your own wisdom into it! I completely agree with you that not only the recipients of stories but the authors themselves need to be aware of their own philosophies, contexts and biases. At the same time, however, I believe that researchers have been so shy about telling stories that many of the insights that we have produced have been lost in the non-telling of those stories. So, as ever, there is a balance to be had here: we do need the Power Skill of story telling to get an insight to lead to action, but we also need to be very careful that we are not overly injecting ourselves into the story!

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10 years ago

We are shaped by stories we hear, it builds are mindset, our character, our goals etc. Another analogy to Colin's take would be if we think of reading an autobiography. Although the writer has done due diligence in portraying the details as best as possible [or so we would assume in most cases], as a reader we connect to the story differently. One person's take away from the story will be different from that of another. And this is subjective of two key things in my view and experience: [a] how does a reader connect with the story, [b] what are the ingrained charactersitics which we as readers try to create bonds with in the story. This largely drives the sub-version of the story we build for ourselves and which we tell others. And even while telling a story to others, it is hugely dependent on correlation of our beliefs and context of moment when the retelling happens, and the ease of recall of those elements. I call it potential for fallacy induced due to self-correlation and ease of recall. Thus to make a story, and in our case as researchers - the story based on insights more grounded, there has to be a mixture of a compelling commentary supported by solid data where needed - this enables us to reduce fallcies due to correlation and enable more accurate recall. But surely a good point and something I reckon is important to consider while both telling your story and listening to one.

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