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The Vital Role of the Narrative Arc in Business Data Storytelling

How to Use the Narrative Arc in your Data Storytelling Presentations

“No guts, no story.”

~ Chris Brady

Question for you: what’s the difference between your Tuesday campaign readout and Game of Thrones? Give up?

Answer: One is data. The other is a story.

During my training workshops and conference sessions, I ask my audience to stop and think about the most memorable stories of our time. The stories that moved them, changed them, and

transformed them. Certain movies, books, myths, and fables come to mind.

Perhaps you think of The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, or Breaking Bad. For me, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness. I see you, fellow closet Cumbertrekkies.

Then, I ask the audience to call out the common elements they can think of in those stories. I usually end up with a list that looks like this:

  • Relatable and endearing characters
  • Despicable villains
  • An intriguing plot
  • Surprising twists and turns
  • A dramatic climax
  • A satisfying conclusion

With an occasional red herring shouted out like “John Williams”. That actually happened, and I am in complete agreement, of course.

Then, I ask the audience to think about how they relate those elements to several busy, cluttered data presentation slides:

The crowd goes predictably silent, with some awkward twittering. I continue with, “So there’s some data. And lots of other stuff. But do you see any of the actual story elements we just talked about? No? Well, that’s because this is not a story. There’s a story in there somewhere, but it’s kinda hard to find, right?”

The audience uncomfortably nods. I empathize: they now see the stark contrast between a great story and the cluttered, nonsensical slides before them. That’s why if there’s one chapter to infuse into your DNA, it’s this one. This is where your big shift will happen.

Data Storytelling: it’s not what you may think

Despite the rise of “data storytelling” as the business buzzword du jour, it’s still a mystery to most practitioners. I’ll give the simplest definition possible:

A story is a compilation of characters, circumstances, and events with a beginning, a middle, and an end, which all lead to a transformation.

If your data presentation were a movie, the Message would be the tagline and the Story would be the film itself. The Story is the meat & potatoes of your session (or beans, if you’re veggie), and it supports and reinforces the overarching theme.

Unfortunately, the only thing most current have in common with that definition is a beginning and end signaled by our calendar alarms.

This is a huge lost opportunity, as illustrated by a research exercise made famous by Chip Heath, Stanford professor and co-author of Made to Stick. In it, Heath describes how he tests his students to see whether facts supersede story. He instructs them to give one-minute speeches to persuade their class about a societal issue. Within ten minutes after hearing the speeches, the students document every idea they can recall.

The consistent results? “When students are asked to recall the speeches, 63% remember the stories. Only 5% remember any individual statistic.” That is a considerable difference and incredibly important! This corroborates a key neuroscientific finding:

Facts and data, often the backbone of our data presentations, are only capable of stimulating two areas of the left hemisphere of our brain, which are responsible for language and analysis. A well-told story, on the other hand, activates seven distinct regions on both left and right sides! No other element of presentation can accomplish this feat.

In fact, you may remember this fact in the future because now you know the story behind it! That’s why story is so powerful: it helps you meet our first goal of maintaining audience attention by firing their brains on all cylinders.

This begs the question, are the decisions we make during meetings truly data-driven, or perhaps…story-driven?

Ryan Levesque, the mastermind behind a wildly popular business framework called the “Ask Method”, has the answer to this question. He says that “people buy with emotions and then justify with logic.” Think about that for a moment.

Was it data like iPhone storage capacity and processing power that whipped Apple customers into a frenzy at the Macworld keynote? Of course not! It was the emotions Steve Jobs triggered by painting a clear picture of how the iPhone would change their lives.

We humans can’t simply shut off our emotions to make purely “data-driven decisions”. While the data we provide should be free from bias and manipulation, the storytelling part is more pivotal than we realize. The reality is that story and emotions drive decisions, and data substantiates them.

Story is also powerful for presenting data because of it elicits empathy in our audience. Researcher Paul J. Zak runs the neuroscience lab that discovered the relationship between oxytocin release and the feeling of safety in the world. His research led him to an exciting discovery that has implications for leveraging story to create influence:

“Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”[3]

Zak observed this importance in a subsequent experiment where his team found that character-driven narratives “consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others”.

Did you catch that? Telling compelling, character-driven stories inspires audiences to help people. Can you think of a people  whom you’re trying to inspire your audience to help? (cough-the customer people-cough).

So when my audiences routinely ask me what the number one thing missing from data stories is, my answer is a story. More specifically, a facet of story that is mostly absent in presentations today: a story. More specifically, the narrative arc.

The narrative arc is a mysterious, intangible force. Think of it like the Matrix: it is all around us in a story and invisible to the naked eye, but it organizes and leads us through our world.

What is the Narrative Arc?

Narrative arc (used interchangeably with story arc) refers to the shape and structure of a story. As before, it’s not something you visually perceive in a story, but rather, organizes the components of story in a way where they flow to create drama, relief, and transformation.

Two of the more familiar story structures you may have heard of are the three-act play (beginning, middle, and end) and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”.

We’ve already described the three-act play: it’s the one with a beginning, middle, and end. The Hero’s Journey is more intricate: it breaks down the passage of the hero through three main phases of Departure, Initiation and Return (plus a multitude of sub-phases with esoteric names like Apotheosis, Woman as the Temptress, and Belly of the Whale). Intriguing names, yet maybe not practical for business purposes.

I find the three-act structure too simplistic and the hero’s journey too complex for presenting data in a business meeting context. Luckily, as would delight our beloved nursery heroine Goldilocks, there is a structure in the middle that feels just right.

Gustav Freytag, German novelist and playwright, is best known for his analysis of the three-act play. He more granularly defines that structure with a bell curve shape demarcated by five distinct plot points.[4] I’ll explain each of those plot points in both the context of traditional cinematic (film and TV) and presentation. Speaking of The Matrix, we’ll use it as a comparative template as it exemplifies the best of the three-act structure and the hero’s journey as well.

The Five-Step Narrative Arc Structure

Step 1: Exposition

Exposition sets the stage. Here we weave a tapestry of the time and place, current events, and characters (including identifying the hero or heroine). We meet Neo, our reluctant anti-hero, and see his bland cityscape in our current timeline.

For a data presentation, this is where you'd review the backdrop your topic: the marketing campaign, the ad creative, the A/B test parameters, or whatever information needed to understand what’s to come.

Step 2: Rising Action (The Conflict)

Our hero encounters their first obstacles and villain. This stage is dubbed “rising” because it elevates tension and when done well, the audience's blood pressure. The challenges are ominous, the villain is dastardly. Neo is extracted from the Matrix by Trinity and team after being targeted by the synthetic “program” Agent Smith and joins the Resistance against the machines.

For you, this is where you begin to reveal your insights and expose the conflict, which is either a problem or opportunity in the data. A conflict can be either negative or positive, because it is simply something that stands in the way of what the hero wants.

You might open with the expected key performance indicators or show an insight everyone anticipated. But to raise the action, you show them something they didn’t expect. Perhaps you dug deeper into a customer segment and found an anomaly, or the predicted test winner didn’t pull through.

This is where you want to build suspense so that they’re primed for the big shoe drop during…

Step 3: The Climax

The hero is now in most treacherous territory, and the stakes are at their highest. Here, decisions mean victory or failure. Smith and his agents engage Neo in an epic deathmatch, and we’re not sure if he’s going to make it out of the Matrix alive.

This is where you want to show your stakeholders the most impactful or uncomfortable part of the insight. They see just how challenging this problem may be to solve if immediate action isn't taken. That it’s only going to get worse.

Most importantly, this is also where you want to show them what they stand to lose by not taking decisive action. You agitate the feeling of loss, the power of which I’ll explain in a few chapters.

Step 4: Falling Action (The Plan)

The tides are turning in favor of the hero, and victory is on the horizon! The tension begins to dissipate like air from a balloon. Trinity’s love resuscitates Neo out of his brush with death, and he comes alive with the power to bend the Matrix and defeat Agent Smith.

This phase is where your action plan, or recommendations, really shine. You bring the audience’s agitation down with your calm and collected strategy. Never fear, help is near! You show everything they need to make this recommendation a reality and demonstrate what they stand to gain by enacting it. And now that you’ve deftly walked them over the arc, they are super receptive to hearing your plan because they want a solution, and now.

Step 5: Denouement (Resolution)

Denouement is fancy français for resolution to the conflict. This signals the hero’s transformation and/or the happy ending. Neo has defeated the Agents, and the system behind the machines now knows that they have a formidable new opponent on their hands. He is on his way to helping the Resistance fight for their freedom.

This is where your recommendations are discussed, approved, and assigned. The plan is now in place. They should leave the meeting with a pronounced feeling of relief, knowing that solutions are on the horizon and they’re in the driver's seat of making them happen.

Now, notice how in the final Resolution step, our hero lands in a space above the place they originally started. This signifies their transformation. Whether the ending to the story is happy or not,  the hero has evolved in some way; they will never be the same again with their newfound knowledge, wisdom, abilities, and perspectives.

 Done right, the insights you share and action plan you propose will facilitate the transformation for your audience.

So always ask yourself: What is the transformation you wish to inspire? Begin with the end in mind, and you begin on the right foot.

Like Neo’s White Rabbit, story will find you once you know what to look for. I encourage you to come into greater awareness of this tool as you find stories in this book and how stories are woven into the tapestry of our lives. Look for story structure in movies, television, and even your kids’ bedtime reads.

Do you see a difference? Your audience may not see it, but they will feel it. And their feelings are key to achieving your objective. To be clear, I'm not saying decisions should be driven from a purely emotional place, especially not our dubious “gut instincts”.

I’m saying that trying to influence decisions from a purely rational place is harder than if you leverage emotion as well.

To close this chapter, I’d like to use several storytelling techniques to empower you with a helpful mindset for the roles our stakeholders and we play in the story of data presentation. I'm going to reference what is arguably the most excellent story of all time.

Of course, it’s Star Wars. Picture your favorite Star Wars characters, if you’re a fellow fan. We start with the central protagonist and antagonist, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. The classic incarnations of good and evil.

Let’s begin with Darth Vader, the quintessential villain. Based on how south business meetings can go, everyone has an opinion on who the villain is.

But in this story, Darth Vader is not anyone at the conference table.

Vader represents the challenges and obstacles your stakeholders face that are interfering with success. Vader is the nosediving conversion rate, the broken product images, the increased competition driving up your advertising costs. The true villain in every presentation is whatever is standing in the way of your audience’s success.

Now, I’m getting the sense that you, the practitioner presenter, wish to be Luke. Everyone wants to be the hero. But, alas, we are not. Rather, your stakeholders are Luke! Remember, your audience is the centerpiece of the presentation process.

If you’re going to do this right and show up to the presentation process from a lens of service, then you’re going to make your stakeholders the hero of your data story.

Well, if the audience is Luke and their obstacles are their challenges, who does that make us?

If you said Master Yoda, you’re correct! You are the audience’s guide. You are their Sensei, their Master Splinter, their Mister Miyagi. You and your insights are the lightsaber that will lead them to their own victory!

Hopefully that is a useful mindset for understanding how to approach your role in the presentation process. And to transmit that mindset, I used the following cinematic storytelling elements:

  • Relatable characters
  • A surprising turn of events
  • A tense climax
  • A satisfying resolution (I hope!)

See how this works? When I began incorporating story and narrative arc into my data presentations, everything changed. This is precisely why I decided to inform data-driven decisions with story-driven data.

Your numbers make up your data, but it is your data storytelling that will create insight and inspire action.

 Where Lea is Speaking Next:

I'd love to meet you, in-person or online! Here are the data storytelling, analytics, digital marketing conferences and events I'll be speaking at:

Thanks for Listening!

Thanks so much for joining me. Have some feedback you’d like to share, or a question? Leave a note in the comments below, and we’ll get back to you!

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