Why do we enjoy stories? What forms the basis of a story? Why and how should we pick up storytelling skills?
We are joined by a Leadership Story Coach, Denise Withers who will teach us how to master storytelling as well as master data storytelling.
George: Hi everyone and good data morning. Have a wonderful morning wherever you are. I hope it starts with good data. So today's topic will be about storytelling. How wonderful is that? Storytelling is one of our oldest, art forms. It really stimulates that imagination and it builds a sense of community, a stronger relationship between the teller and the listener.
So before we go into that introduction, who our wonderful special guest is, I do want to have a quick pitch on something that you might also be interested in, and that's this "Data visualization for data storytelling" online course, that was actually just launched yesterday. And it's something that Donald Santos and I put together over the past few months.
There's a lot of different areas that it does cover. There are six different modules from the basic concepts of foundations of data visualization, core graphs, best practices. We also have visualization and data storytelling, field guide, and so far from the feedback that we're getting, it's really one of the favorites from our current students; a data storyteller's journey, and a lot of other bonus content. There's actually, if you do take a look at lightsondata.com/courses, you can see the content of each lesson in a bit more in depth. And there's quite a few lessons. Close to six hours’ worth of content that you can go through. And because it's online, it's on demand. You can take it as often as you want to. And you know what, if you're not happy with it for whatever reason. And let me tell you, nobody has been unhappy with it, but if you are, for whatever reason, you do have a guarantee for 30 days money back.
So there's no risk from your end. All right. Enough with my pitch. Diana, if you do the honors to please introduce our guest.
Diana: I would love to. I'm very excited about our guest today and also about the topic. Our today's guest is a certified leadership coach and award-winning storyteller. Her job is to help people use stories to lead change for good.
She collaborated with organizations across various industries who promote clean energy or reduce chronic disease, transform learning, re-imagine transportation, advanced biotech and so on. So as you can see, it's a lot of variety here. A lot of industries. Probably all the industries where we can use storytelling to lead change.
Her groundbreakings stories have been seen by millions of people across channels that include Discovery, CBS, National Geographic, and Financial Post. Our guess has really impressive clients and a really impressive portfolio. She has worked with the government of Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health, SAP, Rogers, and the University of British Columbia.
Most recently she helped two national geographic photographers take their ocean conservation agency from a startup to a superpower, doubling in their size, reach and impact in less than a year. And how does she do it? You might ask well, is through coaching through courses and creating services that focus on four key impact areas on leadership, on strategy, brand and culture.
And I am truly amazed by the fact that she has 35 years experience with storytelling. And since 2013, she started her private practice. She created a powerful new framework for change. Ultimately helping hundreds of leaders across sectors to shape the future with stories. She recently published a book about her work called story design, and also hosts a podcast to support leaders in their ventures.
Everyone, please welcome Denise Withers.
Denise: Well, thanks so much for that amazing introduction. And I'm laughing to myself because 35 years experience means I'm old, but that's okay because it's been an amazing journey. And, and, you know, in so many ways as a storytelling starting to become mainstream, I'm starting to feel like I'm really just getting going.
I think the opportunities are growing. I'm seeing more and more people interested in this everyday. So I'm really excited to be here and to hear some of the questions you have and see how I can share what I've learned..
George: Thank you so much. And please this is for the audience: make sure you're putting in your questions, your comments, your feedback, and we'll try and address as many as we can during the show.
And definitely take advantage of this session because as you already know, Denise Withers is the absolute expert on storytelling, including data storytelling too. She has a lot to say about that as well.
Diana: Before we get started, I want to ask Denise, "Denise, what is your story?"
Denise: Well, you know, it's a bit like the color in the color whose kids don't have any shoes.
I'm terrible at telling my own story. You know, the short version is really that I studied radio and television arts and I spent about 20 years working in television. So mostly making discovery, channel documentaries also a lot of science documentaries, a lot of technology documentaries, and I did some work on social issues as well.
And it was amazing. It was amazing work. And I think the reason that I loved it so much was it was taking that really complex topic coming at it with fresh eyes, with beginner eyes, and then being able to translate that for the public audience. And then, you know, around the turn of the century, reality TV came up.
And, honestly it decimated the broadcast documentary industry. There were very few survivors. And so, I decided to leave TV and I ended up going back to grad school. And this was at the time when digital technologies were starting to get really popular. And so, the piece that I'd always loved about the storytelling was, you know, the education and the learning.
So, I thought, okay, I'm going to go study which technologies are best for certain kinds of learning tasks. And when I got there it was at Simon Fraser university and it was a brand-new program called the school of interactive arts and technology. And honestly, between us, they were just getting going and they really hadn't figured their curriculum out so we could really do whatever we wanted, which was amazing. And so, I discovered that there was this thing called engagement that nobody had really studied for adults before. There'd been a tiny bit of research in kids, but nobody had looked at it for adults before. If you've come from TV, it's something that you do naturally.
You have to design every minute of your program to be engaging because in those days, if you didn't, if people got bored, they changed the channels and you were out of a job. So for us, it was second nature. And what I realized was all of these new learning programs that were being designed, everything digital that was being designed was being made to look beautiful, but people really had no idea how to make it engaging so that you know, you'd be able to get and keep somebody's attention. So that's what I ended up doing my grad research on. So it was really, you know, looking at cognitive theory a lot about how we learn, how our brains work, how we process information. A lot about entertainment. I looked at immersion and presence and concepts like that. And ironically, after all of this research, it turned out that the structure of stories, the way that we process stories, that's actually the most powerful tool that we have for engagement. So, I kind of went to grad school, then moved on from story and ended up coming out of there, more convinced than ever that story was really the way to go.
So coming out of there I worked in post-secondary for about five years and I still actually do quite a lot of work in post tech. And actually, that's where George that's where you and I met was at the Sauder school of business where I came into really bring design and innovation into the curriculum there. Spent a few years starting up the D school for strategic design which is teaching design thinking. And that was the first school of its kind in Canada. We were a little bit trying to be like you know, Stanford of the new. And then, yeah, I left in 2013 and that's when I really started to combine story and this design framework, and I realized this was what I'd been doing my whole career and realizing that you can actually use story as a framework for change.
You can use stories for research, you can use stories for testing, for planning, for evaluation, for monitoring, for communication. There’re so many things that you can do with stories. And so that's really the work that I've been doing since.
George: And well not to, mention again, that you've also written his book on story design that people can check it out on Amazon.
Just can you say Google on Amazon or is the word Amazon of verb as well, but anyways, he designed a way to innovate. Definitely check out her website as well. She has a lot of great content here and you can also find out how you could get in touch with the needs to help you out on with your company, with your projects, if you wish to do so.
And definitely also check out her podcast. She does have the latest one released here, which I've listened to the latest episode. It seems so intriguing. I'm looking forward to listening from the chief storyteller from the city of Denver.
Denise: Yeah. And I just, just a quick you know, I guess it's a little plug for the podcast.
What I'm trying to do there is actually bringing leaders who are using stories in interesting ways to help everybody understand that you can do more than just tell a story in a traditional way. So that that's really what you'll find when you dig through the podcast.
George: Beautiful. So Denise already, we have quite a few questions coming in.
Why don't we start with the beginning and it's one from a Thomas. Just trying to put up.
Diana: I would like to add to that question. If possible, Denise, while listening to you, there was something that really stood out for me. You said that the way that we process stories. And one of the things that I learned in my Toastmasters club was that people will not remember what you told them.
They will remember how you made them feel. And I believe that that's how, what you do with story. So then the question, Tomasz's question, where do you start building a story and more than that, how do we process stories?.
Denise: Sure. So I'm going to make those two separate questions if that's all right. So where do we start building the story?
So storytelling, even though we would every day throughout our lives and we do it quite unintentionally, storytelling is at a really deep level a communication exercise, and we tell stories for a very specific reason. And the reason is, we want to change something about the way somebody thinks, what they think, what they do or how they feel, Diana to your point.
Right? So it might be as simple as sharing a little piece of information or it might be trying to get them to buy into our idea. It might be trying to get them to do things differently, but ultimately it might even be just change our relationships. So you, so you like me more, or you respect me more.
You trust me more. But really it's all about trying to change something. So the very first place to start, if you're going to do this as a deliberate exercise, I love it when people do that, is to think about what am I trying to change? So at the end of the story, because stories take you from one feeling, one set of circumstances, one place, stories take you from one place to a different place. So you feel one thing at the beginning and you feel something at the end, right? So there's always change through a story. That's the whole reason why you tell a story. So the very first step is to think about what do I want to change and who do I want to change and getting really clear on that then helps you share that story.
And yeah, I'll stop there for a second. There's I can go a lot more into depth than that. Diana, so your question about the fact that we don't remember what people tell us, but remember the way they make us feel. I would actually argue that I think that it's both. And maybe I'll just give you a quick sketch of the story structure that I work with.
And this goes back to my, to my grad research. So every story essentially describes the experience that somebody as they solved a problem. And I use the word problem really loosely. So problem might be "I'm hungry, I want something to eat". A problem might be " people are trying to overthrow our government. How did we stop them?" Right? I mean, problems can be anything. And so every story describes how you solve that problem. So every story really has four key elements. I try to keep it really simple. So there's the person solving the problem- you can call him or her the hero or the main character.
They start with a problem. The problem creates what I call a gap between where they are now and where they want to be. I'm hungry. I want to be not hungry, I want to be full. I'm unemployed. I want to be employed. People aren't buying my product. Somebody brought my product, right? So you have a problem and then there's a gap. So to solve the problem, to close the gap, you go on a quest. So that's the third piece, right? So there's the hero, the problem, the quest, and during the quest, you're looking for knowledge or tools or information or help to help you figure out how to solve the problem. And then at the end, there's a resolution and that's really it. And then the resolution changes something about the person or the situation. And so you can think about big epic movies and you'll see that that works.
I talk about Lord of the rings all the time. You know, on a very basic level, right? Frodo has the ring of power that he has to figure out how to destroy. He goes on an epic quest for seven hours of movie, right? And you run it all little mini problems all the way along the way. And then ultimately, he casts the ring into the fires of Mordor and he saves the world and all is good. So the thing that's really important about this is that unresolved problem that's where engagement happens.
Our brain is wired to say, Hey, there's a problem there that I don't know the answer to. So as Frodo is trying to solve his problem, my brain starts to play along and follow along with that. And as Frodo's trying different things, my brain is going a lot: "I would try this. Oh, I wonder if he's going to try that."
So the way that you keep your story engaging is you keep, you basically break it down into a series of little mini problems. And so again, if you think about every TV show that you watch, every book that you read, there's chapters, there's scenes, there's story beats, right? And every one of those is like a little mini story, right?
So if you're a Lord of the rings fan Frodo gets the ring and Gandalf tells him he's going to meet him in the village of Bree. So Frodo puts the ring in his pocket and he says, you know, I can cut across country easily enough. And he thinks all he has to do is get to the village of Bree. Well, it turns out he gets attacked on the way. And you know, finally, finally Frodo gets to the village of Bree and, oh my goodness, Gandalf the wizard isn't there to meet him. Now Frodo's got a new problem. So that's what keeps us engaged. The minute that you solve Frodo's problem engagement stops. At the end of the movie once that ring goes into the fire, 90% of the people are like, Ooh, I don't really have to pay attention anymore. I'm out. I'm done. Right. So, Diana that's where I say that I think it's a combination of both. Now what happens at a physical level during the story, which is what makes us feel these things is, so there's a lot of great neuroscience coming out of both stories now. So one of the things that's been showing is when you start to relate to somebody and you start to care about somebody, it releases oxytocin, which is sometimes called the love molecule. It's a molecule, it's a chemical that's released by nursing mothers, for example, when they breastfeed. So you start to care about somebody, you have empathy for them, you care for them. Right? So that's one of the things that also keeps you engaged in a movie or a story.
The other thing is that this unresolved problem creates stress, which produces cortisol, which also then it heightens your attention and makes you pay attention. That would be the same thing back in our days when we were hunter gatherers, if you saw movement in the bush over there, you know, boom, you'd be paying attention because you didn't know if it was something coming to kill you or not.
And then the other thing that also triggers your emotions is at the end of the story, assuming it's a happy ending, you're going to get a hit of dopamine. And dopamine is the feeling that we get every time somebody likes one of our posts on social media, right? So all of those things also feed into your emotions and what the science is actually showing is those chemicals have residual effects and they actually stick around for quite a bit longer.
One of the experiments they did was with a charity. They actually showed people two videos, one had a story with basic information in it, and the other had the same information wrapped in a story. And then they asked people to donate. And at the end, the people who saw the story donated way more and they donated much longer after they saw this story. So that's part of the power of story out there. I can go on forever again.
George: Yeah. So yeah. I just want to ask the audience to give us a thumbs up so we can get a dose of right now. If you don't mind. It's always welcome.
You definitely have some Lord of the Rings fans in here. Yeah. And as you're retelling that story it was really bringing me back and thinking of other similar stories and how similar they are actually with Harry Potter as well, and even Star Wars and really, I think all those great movies, successful movies, they're all trying to follow a similar structure. And I think that also answered another question that was brought forth by Thomas. Again, if you can provide a little bit of that structure and as you were talking, it was also looking at a quick preview of your book. And I noticed that you do talk a little bit about that as well in here. Yeah, there you go.
Denise: I was just going to say, that's the basic structure right there and you can do quite a lot with that, which I do go into in the book. So. Yeah.
George: And I was going to say just just yesterday I was doing a little bit of research and I've noticed that you wrote this book and it's, it's on my wish list right now.
Diana: You get it George and I'll read it too.
George: All right. All right. And you already getting somebody from the audience that has read the book and it's an excellent book. I have no doubts that it is.
Diana: Yeah. You know, where I personally get stuck is what happens if you don't have a story? How do you identify the stories that are going to be impactful?
Denise: Yeah. And so I hear that quite a lot: "I don't have a story to tell". And we all do have stories to tell. I think the challenge is recognizing it and then knowing how to shape it so that it's engaging. And so You know, you have a story to tell about how you got up and got ready for the show this morning. So in a very basic level, your problem was, so you're going to be the hero. Your problem was that you had to, you know, get up and get dressed and get fed and you know, all of that, make sure the technology was working and all that. So you had to prepare for the show. And then you had to go through a series of things to make that happen. And then at 7:59, you know, there was a resolution and you were able to go live with the show. So everything that you do to solve a problem is a story. The real question here is, is it a story worth telling? Right. So there's a difference between what I call every day chronology of this happened, then this happened, then this happened and a story where you want people to take away something specific. You want them to learn something specific or feel something specific. Again, you want to change what they think or feel if that makes sense.
George: But Denise is there an art of storytelling that even out of nothing, you can make something? So for example Diana and I have this friend who's a wonderful friend and I feel that she can make a story out of everything, out of the most mundane tasks. So even her dropping the keys to the car as she's walking over across the street, and when she's really retelling that story, which when you're thinking, it's not really worth telling, but if she makes it so engaging that it, like she raises your hopes up and makes you wonder, well, what did happen? Did you actually retrieve the keys afterwards?
And I think it's just a way of her selecting her words and walking through that journey, which is really five second journey, but she talks about it for five minutes. So is there something that we could turn anything into a story if we wanted to?
Denise: Yeah. So what you're talking about there is this idea of a set up and a pay off. So you remember, I talked about the gap and so if we go back to Frodo, you know Frodo puts the key, puts the ring in his pocket and says, I can get to the village of Bree easily enough. Yeah. Right. And so that's a, that's a really good setup. You're like, you're set up to think, oh, it's going to be an easy journey, he 's going to cut through the forest. It's going to be great. So your expectation is one thing is going to happen. But what actually happens is something quite different. Every time something is going to happen. You want to set it up, you want to build it up a little bit, you want to create an expectation. And then when you pay it off quite, you don't have to do this all the time, but when you it's called the payoff, it might be something completely different than what we expect. So that's really that art of taking something that's very small and making it really, really engaging.
And then the other really important aspect of this is, and this goes back to, you know, do you want to tell the story of how you made toast this morning? So I have an acronym that I use it's I call it the S.U.R.E. Storytelling. You want to keep your story simple. You want to make it unpredictable. You want to make it relevant. And you want to make it extraordinary. So the two really key things that we're talking about right now in there are you want it to be unpredictable and you want it to be about something extraordinary. I'm a terrible person to watch TV with, or to go to the movies with because 99% of the storytelling out there is terrible, because I can tell you what's going to happen. I'm bored out of my mind and I hate every minute of it. I don't want to be there. Right. So what's the point in telling me a story when I already know how it's going to end. So George, you've got a friend who's a great storyteller, which is amazing. I bet you've also got friends who are terrible storytellers and they go on and on and on and you're sitting there thinking, oh, I've got it already.
Just goon. Yep. Right? So what's really interesting there, I just want to introduce one other concept is we all have this thing that I call narrative intelligence. And I do talk about that a bit in the book and it's our natural ability to make sense of the world through the lens of story, through that really simple story structure that I described.
And so we have to realize that people actually, when we start to tell them a story, they can fill in most of the blanks. If it's going to be a predictable story, they know, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. All these things happen. So you can skip that. That's where that phrase, "cut to the chase" comes from. Skip all of that and cut to the chase.
George: This ties into Giovanna's question, who's asking you if we can train ourselves to be able to create always happy endings. And I don’t know if Giovanna, you're referring to really the story itself for, in our life. So that's a more on the approaching side. But if he, if he can have a follow-up comment on that, that would be great.
What, why don't we just shifted gears to just a little bit and go into our work lives. And we do have a question here from Nigel, Nigel Kirby. Thank you so much for joining in, but could corporate behavior be better communicated and understood via storytelling?
Denise: Absolutely. Absolutely. So stories really shape our world.
They influence everything we think, we say, and we do, and yeah, George, I'm going to go a bit into the coaching side now, and this is why I got into the coaching piece. So we tell ourselves stories about absolutely everything in our lives and we tell stories to each other all the time. And so every single thing that we do has a story behind it.
You know, the reason that I wrote a book has a story behind it. The reason that I put on a blue sweater, I told myself a story about if I were a black sweater against a black chair, then you wouldn't be able to see me. Right. We tell ourselves stories about everything that goes on in our life, every decision that we make.
And again, those stories are usually at a really, really deep, subconscious level. We don't even know we are doing it. That's where politics comes in. That's where corporate culture comes in. That's where corporate behavior comes in. It's all driven by stories. So if you want to not just communicate a different corporate culture or try to get different behavior in a corporation, the very first thing you have to do is you have to change the stories. And that's true for culture and that's true for ourselves.
And so coming to the happy endings question, a big piece of the work that I do in terms of coaching is helping people figure out what are the stories that they are telling themselves that it's holding them back, that don't have happy endings. And what's the story that they actually want to live into. And then what are the obstacles? What do we need to do to overcome that? And so it's the same thing in an organization. It's the same thing, if you are running a nonprofit and you're trying to communicate with your audience and trying to again, get them to change the way that they think, or they feel, or what they do, you need to change the stories that they tell themselves. . Here's the thing, and this goes into brand storytelling as well, people don't buy ideas, they don't buy products, they don't buy services, they don't buy things. People buy a future story about how you're going to make their lives better. That's in their personal life or that's in their work life.
If you're bringing in a new software system in your organization, you can tell them about all the bells and whistles and things like that. But the story you ultimately want to tell them is "this is going to make your life better. It's going to let you go home from work earlier. It's going to make you have less stress. It's going to make your computer run faster." I mean, whatever it is, that's the story that people want to hear.
George: Right, right. Thank you so much Denise. As Andrew was mentioning really "so true and the internal story you're telling yourself makes a huge difference on how well you can move forward".
And I think you and Andrew know each other
Here's a tip for you Denise, if you don't have one already, "in addition to your book do you have a companion video on the storytelling?". And if not, maybe you should start to creating some videos, but Denise does have the podcast, which I encourage you to listen to and subscribe to.
Denise: I do. And yeah, I have a very long to do list.
And so I'm just going to throw a random pitch out there. If there's a business developer, business manager out there who wants to help me grow my storytelling business, get in touch because I've got tons of ideas that I really want to share, and I really want to get them out there. And I'm just limited by the stories I'm telling myself, so I could use some help.
George: Oh, a Giovanna followed up on this one. And she, she was referring to a happy ending in our stories about data. So I think we can really briefly talk about data storytelling. And we did have a question here from Kingsley in the beginning who was asking if you could kindly explain what storytelling is in data analytics, to non-technical person.
So data storytelling, and to me at least, sorry to jump in here, Denise. It is telling a story with supporting data, but I think a lot of people are using the term data storytelling for a bunch of different things. And that's not necessarily what a data story is and they are advertising it as one. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Denise: You nailed it. That's exactly what I thought. Part of what's happened is storytelling's become more popular as if people are calling everything a story, right? So every time you put a picture up on Instagram stories, it's a story.
Every time you put something up on Twitter, it's a story and it's not, and I'm not saying this just for semantics again, if it doesn't follow that basic structure, if it doesn't have some kind of a conflict in it or a problem to be solved, it's not a story. And the only reason I say that that's important is if it doesn't have that story structure, you don't get the benefits of it.
You don't get the payoff in terms of changing what people think, say, or do. If you want to not tell a story, totally fine, power to you, just realize you're not going to get the same benefits. And so when we talk about data storytellers, George, that's it exactly. If you think back to this idea of you run into a problem and you go off on a quest looking for tools and help to help you solve that problem well, data storytelling is data is the, you know, they are the tool that comes in and helps you solve your problem. And so you're gonna, I'm assuming, you're going to tell the story of what you found in the, data, again, to change somebody's mind, to change what they think, to change what they do, to get them to buy into your idea.
And so a great example of this is I'm working right now with Royal Road University, they have a really amazing project there called the adaptation learning network, working with natural resources, Canada to develop a bunch of courses in different activities to help organizations and cities develop the capacity for climate change adaptation. So everything from recognizing that sea level rise means you might need to build a seawall on your town. To figuring out financial analysts figuring out what's going to be the impact of climate change is costing us billions of dollars every year. So what's going to be the impact of climate change on your organization financially. And how are you going to adapt to that? So there's a whole new skill that's going to be needed. So I'm working with this brilliant climate scientist, who's teaching, call it climate change adaptation fundamentals. And so what he's doing is he's teaching both the basic science and then he's teaching people how to use a lot of the stories or a lot of the tools that are out there to help you figure out, well, how much is the sea level going to rise? How much rain are we going to get? And so we're working together. We've established a really nice flow where I'm helping him tell the story of what the data means. Right? So we'll look at a graph where you can see rainfall, frequency and duration over the last 25 years. And he's able to go in and tell us what's happening there, why it matters to me and how I can use that information to solve my problem.
So that's a really nice example of storytelling. The problem is, how am I going to help my organization adapt to climate change? And part of the solution is using this data, learning how to use this data. So for me, George, I agree with you completely, it's telling a story. It's either telling a story about how you got the data to solve a problem, or what you learned from the data to solve your problem, but really it's only one piece of your bigger story.
Diana: That's amazing, really everything that you said, Denise, I'm just absorbing and I have so many ideas and I wrote a lot of things down. My question is, do the stories need to be personal? Do they need to be visual? Do they have to have characters in them?
Denise: Those are all really great questions. It really depends on the medium you're using and what you're doing. The one thing I would say is they do need to have characters in them. I probably would've have given you a different answer about five years ago. And what I've learned through practice is people relate to other people. So for example, I worked at a nonprofit called sea legacy for ocean conservation. And we had amazing success. We were two very incredibly powerful and popular national geographic photographers. And so it was really interesting for me to see. So the two photographers ran their own Instagram accounts with huge followings, like millions and millions of followers. Right. And then we ran the sea legacy account. We ran a lot of the same content, a lot of the same stories. We did not get anywhere near the same amount of engagement. And what we finally realized was: there was no face. There was no person for them to connect to in those stories. Right. They connected with Paul and Christina, like crazy. They didn't connect with this entity called sea legacy. We needed to have a person there. So I do think you need to have a person. I don't think you need to have a visual at all. I mean, you know, oral storytelling has been around for ever,
Diana: What I meant more was to have an imagery. So not necessarily a photo, but to describe things in a certain way.
I would say you were talking about the seawall and I was thinking maybe, you know, you can imagine a kid or a family walking through the seawall or things like that, or they don't have a seawall and how they feel and how would it make them feel to have a seawall and to actually picture it or describe it in such a vivid way that people can actually see that family or that kid walking down the seawall.
Denise: Absolutely. I would categorize that as "nice to have". So you could actually tell a story in, you know, like you've seen there's, you know, six word storytelling, contests and things like that. Right. And one of the things that I teach is one minute storytelling. And so there's not a lot of room for description. There's not a lot of room for the kind of setup, George, that we were talking about earlier. You can really boil it down, boil your story down to three bullet points and it works. And then it's a question of, if you have more time when you have more resources, you can start to flush the story out, but at its core, at its core, you don't need those things at its core. You need the problem, the quest and the resolution. Those are the only and the hero.
George: So in the case that Hameed is mentioning here, when the data, for example, is giving us a bad ending, it's not what we're looking for. What is that best strategy and telling that bad or disappointing story, and maybe it's the disappointing results not the story itself. So what is that technique? Is it now, because the data is telling us something negative, that shouldn't be the ending, but it's the how do we act on that bad data?
Denise: Yeah. So I would say that's not the ending to your story. Again, the data is just one part of the story. So I'm hoping that the story you're going to tell there is how we're going to make change, right?
So this was probably a learning journey, or you're going to, you can frame it as a learning journey where, you know, we did all of this stuff, but it didn't really work out the way we thought it would. And so from that, we've learned X, Y, and Z. And here's how we're going to act on X, Y, and Z going forward. So you can end on an up.
That's what I would do if it was me and my job,
Diana: Being in Toastmasters I have a running list of stories. So whenever I come across something in my own life, or if I hear a story, I just write it down just so I can use it in one of my speeches. Is going to be this humorous speech, the table topics, the regular speech. It doesn't matter. However, I believe that those are personal ones and they're not as applicable in business. So what is the sequence? Do I first have the story and then apply it or do I have the data and then come up with a story for it?
Denise: So you're trying to tell a data story at work?
Diana: Let's say I do. And the question is. Does the story come after I have the data?
Denise: Well, yeah. So a couple of, so there's two, there's kind of two separate questions for me in there. One is, and I, and I think, you know, COVID has been one of the great silver linings that has come out of COVID is allowed us to become much more whole people at work.
So I think that we've been able to open up and be more ourselves and bring more of our personal lives into our work. So you know, as a leadership coach, I would always say if you've got a leadership lesson or a leadership story that comes from your personal life that you think illustrates something that you want to share with your team at work, absolutely. I would not be shy about bringing that in. And then in terms of how to tell the story of the data again, I would suspect that, well, I know that collecting that data is only part of a journey that you've been on to learn something, or fix something, or change something, or do something, whether it's developed a new project, or run a campaign, or introduce a new program, right? The data, getting that data and analyzing that data and putting that data to work is only part of a bigger story. And so, I think there's a couple of ways that you can develop that story. One is I love the fact that you're actually tracking stories as they happen to you. That's really powerful. And what we should really be doing is if you do that on projects at work, what you're really doing is you're setting yourself up to be able to tell that story to anyone at any time, which is unbelievably powerful as a way to engage them in the work that you do.
Typically what happens, it frustrates, I know, communications and marketing people to no end is, you know, this big project will happen. It'll be a three-year project. And then at the end of it, they'll come to the communications person and say, Hey, can you write this up as us for us? As a story? And the people will say, well, what happened? You know, where's your artifacts were, you know, did you take pictures? Did you document things like what happened during the story? And of course, they can't remember anything because they didn't capture any of it over the last three years. Whereas, if you capture and record your story all the way along now, you're ready to tell it at any time. And it makes telling it at the end so much easier, especially if you have to report out and say, here's how we spent the money over the last three years. Boom, you've got a natural story ready to go. And now what I'm really talking about is this is the fundamental practice of story design, which is really what the book is about. Rather than just using story as a communication tool at the end of something, you use story as a design framework to do things, see if they work, respond to whether or not they work and change. And it's this iterative process it's exact same iterative process that Frodo uses as he's trying to figure out how to destroy the ring of power. We do that as we're working through a project. Oh, well maybe we should buy this piece of software. Oh no. You know, it looks like that piece of software isn't going to work. So, you know, let's try something else. Right. And you're continually trying new things all the way through until you get to the end of your, of your project. And so designing your project as a story has tons and tons of benefits for you. I don't know if that answers your question.
Diana: Yes. Yes. Thank you. If I may, this is very short.
I would also suggest to create your own portfolio of stories and not only to track them in your life, but to have a set of five stories or 10 stories or however, and then to use them on different occasions. And I do believe that the more you tell them, the better you become at it and you start refining them and see what people react to. Just like stand-up comedians who have the same shows, several times before they go on the big stage.
Denise: Exactly. That's great practice.
George: And that's a great example. I never thought about it that way. Stand-up comedians are amazing storytellers.
Denise: Oh yeah, that's true.
George: Yeah. That's true. Going back really quickly on that bad data story piece. Andrew Jones here is saying that "I've been burned in the past, trying to soften a bad data story. It will land back on your desk. So honestly, clarity is, are always the best policy, even when it's difficult, a difficult conversation." And Russell also has a follow-up on this that he's saying that I think regardless of the outcome being positive or negative, the best strategy is to inform. Is authenticity. So I don't hide unpleasant truths, be open, then try to improve the outcomes as soon as possible.
Denise: Yeah. And I think those are both great comments and, and, you know, one of the when I do get pushed back to storytelling it's because people feel that you're fictionalizing or you're making things up, or you're not telling the truth.
And I would say don't confuse storytelling with. Right. Yeah. It's simply a way of framing the truth. So I'm in no means advocating, not telling the truth or burying the truth or trying to hide things with a story. Quite often, what I find is really helpful, especially working with data is sometimes you're going to have a tell a quick intro story, right? Here's the two-minute version of what happened. And then out of that, depending on what people are interested in, then they can pick on one piece of that. And then you can do a deeper dive into the data. But quite often, what I see happens, especially with experts and scientists, is they feel like they need to give you all of the data upfront. They need to tell you everything upfront. Because for them it's really important every, single piece of data is really important to them. And what they don't realize is it might not be the same for their audience. Their audience is going to have a different lens. And so if you can come up with a summary story at the beginning, And then give yourself lots of space to say, okay, you know, which part of that are you interested in?
And then we can basically, again, go into that chapter of the story and tell that story more depth. But those are, those are great comments. I absolutely agree. It's not about trying to hide the truth. It's not about trying to pretend that things didn't happen. It's simply, it's a communications method.
George: And then do you recommend then for data stories to be very clear on the audience and just provide the audience with the intended format? So for example, the higher ups just provide them with that high-level dashboard for them just to get a quick glance and for somebody else that's more in the weeds of it all, just to give them more detail. Or to still create these separate, based on that end-user that have in mind, but then have it as a self-serve solution.
So let the audience self-identify themselves with whoever format is geared for and let them choose. Well, I do want to take a look at the dashboard, or even though I'm with higher up, actually do want to take a look at the details. Do you have any recommendations on that?
Denise: You know, tailored is always helpful, but to do a tailored approach, you need to know a lot about your audience and a lot about what they're interested in. And, and most of the time as much as we'd like to think we know our audience, we don't, we don't do that research. We don't have the data on our audience to know what they're really interested in. And quite often they're interested in things that we do not expect. So I much prefer to come in with more of a, you know, here's the, here's the high level version, and then you can go in and you can pick.
And really that's what happens when you look at any kind of report that goes out. There's an executive summary and then people can dive into whatever part of the data that they like. One of the things about telling stories is that, especially if you're telling a really authentic story from your point of view, and you are bringing in some of your interpretation and some of what, you know, when your expertise into it is that quite often people will pick up on things that they wouldn't have known to ask you in the first place. So that's where a part of the power of story comes from. So for example, flipping that around, if you use stories, a research tool, I find it's much more powerful than a survey or a focus group because both of those instruments, you come in with a fixed set of questions. You come in with a fixed set of assumptions that you're testing. Whereas if I come in and I say: "Diana. I want you to tell me about the most amazing takeout dinner that you ever had". That's a very open question. And I know from experience, you are going to tell me stuff that was important to you that I would never have thought to ask. And I'm going to learn so much more from that than if I came in and said, okay, "I now want you to tell me about what the place setting was. I want you to tell me about what the packaging was like. I want you to tell me for what this was like, right?" I'm not leaving any space for that to happen.
And I mean, this is an actual example from a project I worked on. There was a guy who was starting a food truck business. This was back when food trucks were just becoming a thing and he needed to know what's going to be important to me in designing a successful food truck business. So we had about 15 people in the room and we did it half an hour we did this. We've got everybody to pair up and we said, we picked the closest thing to a food truck experience because food trucks weren't a thing yet. And we said, we want you to share an experience about the best tasting meal experience that you ever had. And then we want you to analyze that experience and identify the top three things that mattered to you in that experience.
And people are quite capable of doing this themselves. You don't have to do it for them. And so they did that. And in 30 minutes, we came up with 10 design criteria for this guy to build his food truck experience on. And a lot of those things were quite surprising. They were things like they knew me by name.
You know, that's not something that I ever thought to ask in a survey important. Right? So, so the kind of data that you can get from doing a narrative analysis can be really, really powerful.
Diana: We have a wonderful question. George, from Kimberly, Kimberly was a former standup comedian and her question was. I can't see it right now, but it was something around how can you, if you can give us an example.
George: Yeah. I'll pick it up right here. And Kimberly yes, she was a former improv comedian and also an award-winning data professional. And she's asking if he can tell us a time of a time when you made a really boring story sexy. Can you do that? Interesting.
Diana: Yeah. Or even if something from your past clients, if there's something that stands out to you, something that, you know, you remember that was...
Denise: I mean, here's, I don't know if this is a really boring story. Probably a lot of people would think it was boring. This is quite a long time ago. I was telling stories for discovery channel about government science, which a lot of people would say right away, that's boring. And so the story was there was, and it probably still happens in the Fraser valley, in the lower mainland of British Columbia. There used to be quite often there would be this really thick one on a dense white smog.
And it was quite dangerous actually, because it was quite high in particular, which is really bad for people to breathe in. Nobody could figure out what was going on. And so there was a a scientist from environment Canada looking at it who was kind of an, an atmospheric air person. Right. And they were looking at it and looking at it and they, and they finally realized that what was happening was there were really high levels of nitrogen particles in there. Government science, right?
Yea high level of nitrogen in the air, nitrogen particulate matter in the air, but they couldn't figure out where it was coming from. And they were like, men, we know this is bad, but we can't solve the problem because we don't know where it's coming from. So then flash forward a couple of years, they're at some government science convention and they bumped into a guy who does water research who would have been working in the same area. And he's like, I've got really high levels of nitrogen in the water down there, what is going on? Right. And so they start, they start talking and they start working with each other. And what they discover is over the last five years, what had happened was there'd been a really huge shift in the agricultural base there away from crops and you know, beef, I guess, towards chicken and poultry farms. Huge numbers of chicken farms developing down the Fraser valley and all of the chicken manure was evaporating and running into the water. And so it was creating, it was basically throwing off their nitrogen budgets for their water.
And so because of that, they were able to say, okay, we need to get into the poultry industry and change the way that they handle the manure so that we can deal with this pollution. So I don't know if that's a, if that's a good example.
Diana: Yes. I think it's in a great example because I know I'm going to remember it.
So what they say "don't make your stories memorable, make them unforgettable". I'm going to remember that. I do have a question and please don't answer as if it's not the right time, but I am curious who comes to you? How would you describe what you do? Is it sales? Is it marketing? Is it communications? Is it making business cases for something?
What is it? Because I think when I assemble a team for a business or example, what I would think I will get, I need someone to do this to social media, to do the product design with blah, blah, but I would, I don't think story, a storytelling expert would be, do you know, on the list? Not necessarily that I don't think it's important, but I would think that maybe a marketing person would do that.
Denise: Great question. And that is my, again, my big shout out to, I need business development help because typically who ends up my, you know, and I think this is true for a lot of consultants is your work comes from your network, right? And it comes from people who've worked with you before. And so a lot of people who come to me come to me, it's more, they're looking for change design.
They're looking for innovation. They know there's. And they don't know what to do. They're not coming looking for stories. You know, stories are a big part of the answer, but they're coming, looking for help to make change. So, so yeah, that, that tends to be why they would come to me. But you know, I'd love to flip that back to you and say, when, when would you think about going to look for stories?
Would that be something, would that be a marketing thing that you would think about? Is that where most of your experience has been with storytelling?
Diana: Well now, after talking to you, I would always think of this option because I find it essential. And I think for example, it start-up would really benefit from something to tell their story.
Organizations who look for funding and need to have that elevator pitch very, you know, to the point, and to be able to say in a compelling way and convincing way why they're doing what they're doing and why it's important. And why it will have a huge impact. Whatever campaign an organization does to raise awareness or to convince the audience of something that would be another thing. And, you know, everything that has to do actually with marketing and communications, I think needs to have a storytelling expert there, but I would say that the priority are new initiatives. New initiatives that need to gain traction. That's where you need storytelling.
George: And as Kimberly is recommending here you do need buy in from analytics departments and marketing management to add a chief data storyteller, data journalist, analytics translator, data storyteller, as job titles. That's definitely very much needed.
And as Diana mentioned, it's really in all parts of the organization, I think, that storytelling piece is needed from just creating a report, to getting buy-in on a project, to getting a customer success story out there and using it to maybe get more clients. So again, to the benefit of the organization to implementing that change, a new process...
Denise: And you start to see my dilemma. You can actually use stories to do everything. So I ended up. So it sound like to everyone, you know, I just heard of an organization where they didn't even know they were doing this. They went out and they analyzed you know, like 50 different companies and how they had been successful.
So they took the company story and then they did basically pattern analysis and narrative analysis on those 50 stories and then extracted the, you know, the criteria for success. So a lot of people are doing story work and they don't even know that they're doing it
George: People are already pitching in with ideas, but yes, anything project, meaning project, product service, interaction.
And there's a few other comments that we've already mentioned, but. Yeah. And Sharad, sorry, just to address your question, because I think you, you came in a little bit late. We talked a little bit about this in the beginning of the session. So as soon as this is done, please go ahead and watch your recording as there's a lot of great content and definitely check out Denise's book because that's also a written in there.
All right now we're drawing to a close. If there are any other questions or from you, Denise, any parting advice and words, any sort of three best tips that we should keep in mind in the back of our pocket for storytelling.
Denise: Yeah. So I'll give you again, the, the acronym. S.U.R.E. Which I think is really important. So keep it simple, make it unpredictable, make it relevant and make it extraordinary. So that would be the one tip.
And then I think just remembering that data is a tool and people don't buy things. They buy stories about how you're going to make their life better. So if you're running a company called, you know, rivals running shoes, they're not going to tell you a story about how they're gonna grow their organization by 200%. They're gonna tell their employees a story about how they're going to kick Nike's ass. So you want to make sure that your story shows people how you can make their life better, how you're going to make them feel better.
George: Well, thank you so much everybody. And thank you all for joining in and thank you so much, Denise, for your time. We definitely need to have you back again, if you're willing and available. And we learned a lot from you and it's very clear that you are a expert storyteller. So thank you so much for all the advice, all the recommendations and all the stories that you've kept us engaged with.
Denise: Well, that's great. Thanks so much for having me again. Yeah. Feel free to get in touch folks, if you have any, any additional questions.
Diana: And I would like to encourage people to visit denisewithers.com your website to listen, especially to the last episode of the podcast that you had, because you said it's amazing. And as you said, connect with you via LinkedIn and have a look at the book story. Thank you so much, Denise. It was lovely meeting you. Thank you very much, everyone for being here today with us for your amazing questions and for the engagement.
George: Thanks, bye.