Data Alone Won’t Get You a Standing Ovation
A few years ago, Dr. Brené Brown delivered a presentation on “The power of vulnerability” at TEDx Houston. As a professor at the University of Houston, Brown studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.
It’s a pretty big subject area to squeeze into 18 minutes, yet Brown did it so well that her presentation has been viewed 15 million times and has turned Brown into a New York Times bestselling author.
She began her presentation with a short anecdote: A couple of years ago, an event planner called me because I was going to do a speaking event. She said, “I’m really struggling with how to write about you on the little flier.” And I thought, “Well, what’s the struggle?” And she said, “Well, I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant.” And I was like, “Okay.” And she said, “But the thing I liked about your talk is you’re a storyteller. So I think what I’ll do is just call you a storyteller.”
Brown said the “insecure” part of her was hesitant to adopt the title because she was a serious academic researcher. However, she eventually warmed to the idea. “I thought, you know, I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. Maybe stories are just data with a soul. And maybe I’m just a storyteller.”
As Brown suggests, we’re all storytellers. In a business presentation, you’re telling the story behind your campaign, company, or product. In a job interview, you’re telling the story behind your personal brand. In a marketing pitch, you’re telling the story about your idea.
In my work as a communication coach for executives at the world’s leading brands I’m often faced with a mountain of data that the speaker wants to get across. My job is to help the person tell the story behind the data—to reveal the soul behind the numbers. Drawing on this experience, as well as my recent research into the most succcessful TED talks and the neuroscience behind audience response, I’ve concluded that that data has the most impact when it’s wrapped in a story.
Consider the following examples:
In December 2010, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took to the TED stage to talk about “Why we have too few women leaders.” Just before the presentation, she told a friend about an incident she’d had with her daughter as she was leaving for the conference. The little girl was pulling at her leg and crying, “Mommy don’t go!” The friend suggested she share that story with her audience too.
Sandberg’s plan had been to give a talk “chock full of data and no personal stories” but she agreed to change course. She described the encounter with her daughter, and told other personal stories about how difficult it was for her to raise a family and have a career, as well as offering statistics. The data reinforced Sandberg’s theme, but it was her stories that launched the Lean In movement.
At TED 2013, U2 front man Bono delivered a presentation on global efforts to reduce childhood mortality. “For kids under five, child mortality is down by 2.85 million deaths a year. That’s a rate of 7,256 children’s lives saved each day,” Bono said. Most presenters would have stopped there. But the rock star went one step further, adding soul to the data by putting a face to the numbers. He told the story of Michael and Benedicta, who “are alive today, thanks in large part to their nurse, Dr. Patricia Asamoah, and the Global Fund”, and showed two slides: the first, a close-up picture of the two smiling children; the second, a photo of Dr. Asamoah conducting her work in a small African village. Data proved Bono’s point; stories brought it home.
Recently, I prepared the executives of a large flash memory company for their annual presentation to investors. Analysts are a tough audience. They want technical information and growth forecasts; few, if any, will tell you they want to hear stories. Yet that’s exactly resonates with them. One senior vice-president wanted to start his talk with some statistics that weren’t entirely new to the roomful of analysts: high-capacity storage card sales growth.
We decided to instead kick off on a more emotional note: He explained that he’s a digital photography enthusiast, with a collection of 80,000 digital photos; then he showed pictures of his high-school-age girls playing sports and said that he wouldn’t trust those memories to anything but the cards his company manufactures. By their very nature, financial presentations must include charts, graphs, and tables, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grab your audience’s attention with a story before you present your data.
Remember: Data won’t get you standing ovation; stories will. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire. Tell more of them.