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Data is neutral. It’s amoral. Data doesn’t speak for itself, despite what many marketers say. Data by itself is just a thing. What you do with the data is what gives it value. How you interpret it gives it value. I wrote about this at length in Marketing Blue Belt, but I thought it worth sharing a few basic ideas about how to tell data stories.

We humans are really bad at understanding data. It’s not how our brains work. We are very good at understanding stories, at crafting narratives, at listening to and interpreting each other. In order to tell stories with data, we have to sequence it into a fashion that fits a story. Here are four basic patterns for telling data stories; this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list.

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The first story is the ascent up a mountain. Take any broad set of data and progressively narrow it down as part of the story. For example, in the SHIFT State of Social Media quarterly reports, we start by saying Facebook as 1.5 billion users. We narrow that down to 90% of that population that uses Facebook at least partly on a mobile device. Then we narrow further to state that half of that group use only a mobile device to access Facebook. The narrowing tells a story in a way we can follow along.

The second story is the cycle. When we talk about marketing evangelists, this is how we feature the process more prominently than the data. We track audience members to leads to sales to customers to delighted evangelists. The key with the cycle is that it emphasizes the stages our data travels through and that the process never ends, never comes to a halt.

The third story is the journey, the travel from beginning to end. The journey, unlike the process, has a defined beginning and end, a completion. We might explain healthcare data this way, from cradle to grave. We might explain a career in marketing this way, from junior role to retirement. One of the traps to look out for is mistaking when something is a cycle versus a journey – very often, we treat cycles like journeys.

The last story is the one we’re most familiar with as marketers, the funnel. This is similar to the ascent, but (well done) focuses on the losses at each stage. In the ascent, we focus on who’s left, but in the funnel we focus on who we left behind – and how we can get more of them to go from top to bottom.

Fundamentally, all of these story types have a progression that we can mentally follow; by telling stories with focus on different aspects of the progression, we can emphasize or de-emphasize certain parts. Like stage magicians, the story type we choose depends on where we want to direct our audience’s attention.


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