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InfoQ Homepage Articles How to Tell Compelling Stories Using Data: Q&A with Dr. Christine Bailey

How to Tell Compelling Stories Using Data: Q&A with Dr. Christine Bailey

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Key Takeaways

  • Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end
  • Stories influence more than data
  • Use data and insights in addition to emotion to tell stories that move minds
  • Start with why and don‘t forget to add in curiosity, anticipation, humour
  • Never lose your common sense!

The more evidence we have, the more likely our ideas are believed - or so we're conditioned to think . But data doesn’t always engage people; this is where storytelling can help to combine data, insights, and emotion, said Dr. Christine Bailey. At Women in Tech 2019 she presented techniques that can be used to tell compelling stories with data, and showed how that can increase our influence with external and internal stakeholders.

In today's world, as the sheer volume of data continues to grow, and terms like 'big data' and 'internet of things' have become ubiquitous, how we communicate insights from data is becoming more and more important, said Bailey.

Bailey explained how a story should look:

"Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  At the beginning, you’re laying out the ‘situation’ - the ‘what is’ state.  The middle of the story describes the ‘complication’ i.e. what needs to be overcome and/or the critical issues.  It also describes possible implications or consequences of not taking action, to add some urgency.  Finally, the end of the story lays out what needs to be done; the action the audience needs to take, the benefits/evidence of taking that action and a picture of the ‘promised land’ or the new/better future."

Every compelling story starts with WHY?  In this day and age, you’ll get found out if you make it up, so your purpose, or your "why" has to emerge from a deeply-held company value, something in the very DNA of the operation, combined with deep customer insights, argued Bailey.

Bailey stated that at the end of the data there is a human being. She reminded us to be ethical: "Just because you can use data points to influence (manipulate?), that doesn’t mean that you should," she said. She advised people to be guided by their moral compass and be authentic, in order to prevent being accused of trust-washing or woke-washing.

"It’s important to be bold and aspirational, but don‘t drown in marketing speak as we‘re talking to humans," said Bailey.  Think about how to add in curiosity, anticipation and humour, she suggested. Do all this and you’ll surely have a happy ending, she said.

InfoQ interviewed Dr Christine Bailey, chief marketing officer at Valitor, after her talk at Women in Tech Dublin 2019 and asked her about data storytelling.

InfoQ: How can we tell compelling stories using the data that we already have?

Dr Christine Bailey: Are you sitting comfortably?  Yes?  So now we’ll begin.  Once upon a time ... think about a time when you had to influence others in some way. Maybe it was persuading your boss to buy into a brilliant new idea that you knew was going to be unpopular or difficult. Perhaps it was closing a must-win deal with an important customer, or maybe it was convincing your team to try something radically different, when they had a track record of being resistant to change.

Knowing you had to make a case for your ideas, where did you turn to first? Chances are you looked for data points, facts and figures and reached for the old, reliable powerpoint deck.

The more evidence the better, right? We’ve been conditioned to believe that the more points of evidence we have, the more likely we are to influence people. Even if we’ve made them up!  But while data may be factual and accurate, it’s not necessarily engaging.  People tend to start with the evidence, whereas that’s more recommended near the end of a compelling narrative.

You’ll need data points and insights to support all of your story (especially the evidence/benefits) at the end.  In my doctoral thesis published in 2008 titled How Large UK Companies Use Customer Insight for Customer Acquisition, Development and Retention, I identified five different sources of data:

  • Competitors
  • Customers
  • Markets
  • Employees
  • Channel partners

From this data, companies were generating four different types of insights:

  • Market predictions
  • Customer segments
  • Propensity models
  • Customer analytics

Ideally you’ll find those nuggets of difference that are going to help you connect with people and make the story more human.  

InfoQ: What are the challenges that data storytelling brings?

Bailey: Never lose your common sense!  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has cursed themselves for blindly following the satnav, even when your intuition knows it’s wrong.  Don’t ever blindly follow your data – if it doesn’t appear to make sense, ask more questions.

That’s also the danger with machine learning and AI – they’re only as good as the humans that built the models and algorithms behind them and are subject to bias and interpretation.  Last year Amazon famously had to scrap a secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women and Microsoft had to apologise for racist and sexist tweets by an AI chatbot.

What happens if you’re buying a gift for another person and the AI thinks it’s for you?  You’ve bought a jumper for your rather large granny and suddenly up pops an ad for plus-size clothing.  Or what about if you’ve bought items for a hen or stag weekend – what kind of future recommendations does that trigger? Personalisation is a double-edge sword.  If you get it right, you can delight your customers.  If you get it wrong, you can really upset people.

InfoQ: How do stories influence people?

Bailey: Here’s the thing: analytics alone don’t actually influence others.  Data points are transactional.  People don’t remember them or respond to them.  As Philip Pullman famously said, "After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world".

Who’s a Game Of Thrones fan?  Did you hear what Tyrion Lannister said near the end of the finale? He asks the rhetorical question, "What unites people?" He goes on to say, "There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it."

Stories tap into our emotions.  They move minds, not products. We remember them. As poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou famously said, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

InfoQ: What benefits of storytelling have you seen?

Bailey: Disruptive brands always have a story.  Look at Virgin - one of the most powerful, disruptive brands in the world, transcending a whole multitude of products and services. How does Richard Branson explain this success? His tips are to "tell great stories that help people associate with your brand values".

Regardless of sector, successful branding today is all about having a clear position, a ‘North Star’ purpose, building trust, creating immersive, innovative and personally engaging experiences and customer journeys in a human way.

Branding today must be rooted in insight. Without insight, you won’t have understanding, and without understanding, you won’t be able to build the kind of compelling and personal storytelling that connects with your customer and communicates your vision.

InfoQ: What tips can you give for telling stories?

Bailey: The next time you need to influence others, stop for a moment and think about how you want people to feel. More often than not, you can answer that question by looking at your own passions and motivations around your project. Harness that positive energy. Think about how you can share that feeling with others.

Then think about how you’re going to build your story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
By all means use your data and insights as your support structures - you’re going to need them, particularly when you need your evidence.

Every good story starts with WHY, so find your why!  Get inspiration from Simon Sinek!  Go out and conduct some research and talk to customers. Find your purpose.  

As an example of how to do this: when I joined Valitor as CMO in August 2017, the company was operating as five different companies, with five different brands, all with different value propositions.  Valitor had started out in 1983 as Visa Iceland (issuing Visa cards) and was dominant in the Icelandic market, but had recently expanded into the UK and Denmark through acquisitions, and from there was serving customers across Europe. How could we go from being an Icelandic issuer and acquirer to an international payment solutions company?  How could I find our why? Develop a mission statement with a purpose and find the "red threads" that were common differentiators across the whole business? Everyone internally had strong opinions, and they differed widely, so I embarked on a strategic insights study with the help of a company called Context Consulting.

We went through a four-stage process.  First we interviewed fifteen internal stakeholders to get their view of the business and the market.  We identified seven of our top competitors and reviewed their marketing messages.  We didn’t validate their strengths and weaknesses or add our own assessment; we just looked at the messages they were putting out in the marketplace. Then we interviewed thirteen experts from the payments industry.  Finally, we conducted fifty five in-depth telephone interviews with end-users in Iceland, the UK and Denmark, who were either existing customers or prospects who matched our target profile.

It turns out that people don’t really care about payments, but they DO care about buying and selling and it should be as easy, simple, transparent, frictionless – whatever term you prefer – as possible.  So that became our mission, our purpose, our WHY – to make buying and selling easy.

To start with, I got quite a lot of resistance from people arguing, "How can we say that we make buying and selling easy when we only look after the payments piece?"  So that’s when you need to add the "how" piece or your story. We take care about our customers' payments, so they can focus on buying and selling.  

About the Interviewee

Christine Bailey joined Valitor, an international payment solutions company, as chief marketing officer in August 2017.  She has 25+ years' experience of B2B marketing in technology/payments, including leading European marketing functions for Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems. A respected thought leader and motivational speaker who gave the TEDx Talk 'Unconventional Career Advice' (102k views), Bailey was recently voted #1 Woman in Tech by B2B Marketing, #3 female influencer in UK B2B marketing by Onalytica, and is among the top 20 women leading the charge in revolutionary SaaS marketing by SaaStock. Bailey is an advisor for the European Women Payments Network (EWPN) and a senior fellow of The Conference Board. She has a doctorate (DBA) in customer insight from Cranfield School of Management.

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