How to Develop a Story from Data

Did you know that out of 500 most popular TED talk presentations, stories made up at least 65% of the content? There is simply no better way to compel your audience to action and make your main point memorable than to use the emotional one-two punch of a narrative. You know it in your gut and science backs it up.

But what if you don’t have a story to tell? What if you just have a list of numerical data, and that’s it? You can still tell a compelling story, even if all you have are a few charts and some bullet point statistics.

How to Develop a Story from Data

Here’s an example narrative to give you context about what we mean. Let’s say you work for a company called PrimoTech Inc., and your company manufactures GPS software that is put into cars for automatic navigation. Your boss has assigned you to deliver a presentation that shows how many units have been produced, how many have been sold, and what that means for the yearly profit. All you have are numbers. You are struggling to see how a compelling, TED-talk story can be built from these facts and stats.

Start with “how”

No numerical data was created in a vacuum. For each percentage increase or decrease, there is a “how” to explain why the ticker moved. Spend some time researching your “how” by talking to people at each level of your company. Think like a journalist and choose the very best explanations to put within your presentation and supplement the facts. If someone noticed that drivers were becoming more interested in smart cars, which is why a particular kind of GPS sale increased while others did not, learn more about that trend. Why smart cars? Why now? The possibilities of “how” are endless.

Go cinematic

As you gather up information to uncover the “how,” make sure that the stories you select have a dash of cinema in them. Do they end in cliffhangers? Are they surprising? Do they have a personal touch? Think about the way the numerical changes have affected real people and lives throughout the year. Even if you just use a quote from a coworker or describe how you personally felt when the numbers rose or fell, it’s enough to add the drama that a presentation needs to be compelling.

Beginning, middle, and end

You probably already plan to describe the data sequentially, either by each quarter or otherwise. Why not build a narrative around this process, giving your audience a clear introduction with a storytelling flair and then ending with a cliffhanger like “what will next year look like?” You might consider setting the stage with a picture of the office in January, and then end with a picture of the office in December. No matter what creative concept or narrative you choose, make sure that it tells the entire story from beginning to end. Don’t just present a lump of data: stretch it out and give it a little flow.

What could your finished presentation look like with this technique applied? You stand up in front of the internal audience and tell them the story about Gary, a developer who worked diligently all year and hardly slept in order to better understand why more GPS units were being sold for smart cars. “And what he found will shock you…” You then build your data to support the yearly findings and Gary’s work, concluding that the company should make plans to shift next year. Now your deck isn’t just data: it’s an adventure all on its own.

Want to read more about storytelling tactics for data-heavy presentations? Check out these related articles from our archives:

Beware! Avoid These Presentation Storytelling Mistakes

The 5 Elements of Storytelling for Presentations

Storytelling Ideas for Presentations

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