What do Big Data and Storytelling have to do with each other?

What do Big Data and Storytelling have to do with each other?

Ninety per cent of the world’s data has been generated over the past two years. But how do we make sense of it all? Storytelling seems to be the answer – but it’s not a panacea warns our Director, Cilian Fennell. 



Big Data. It’s a multi billion-dollar industry. In fact, some estimate that by 2019, big data will drive $48.6 billion in annual spending worldwide.

Ninety per cent of the world’s data has been generated over the past two years. That is the staggering figure released by a 2013 report by SINTEF, a large independent research organization in Norway. Now that we have it, what do we do with it? How do we make sense of all that data?


The answer, paradoxically, seems to be rooted in a method humans have been using since we came into being – Storytelling. Meeting ying with yang; hard with soft; technical with creative. Over the past few years, storytelling has gained momentum in the business and marketing world. We are now in an era where almost every industry wants in on the latest marketing and communications buzzword.


Storytelling is on the rise, and it can be a powerful tool for businesses. But why is the concept growing exponentially right now; what accounts for this rise in storytelling as a means of business communication?


What we are experiencing now is a fourth wave of storytelling in business.


The first wave was in the 50s and 60s, when advertising was really taking off and companies starting investing in brands and advertising narratives.


The second wave came as a response to the growing complexity of organisations in the late 80s and 90s. Big corporations like 3M, Xerox and IBM began using storytelling as a way to capture knowledge, simplify the complex and create compelling vision statements.


Storytelling became widespread in the early 2000s as companies invested more in brands, culture and differentiation. An explosion of companies meant there was severe competition and stories were used as a way of explaining the origin, values and intention of brands. Stories were also mainstreamed into pitches and presentations due to their considerable powers of persuasion.


This latest wave of interest in storytelling is interesting. While it is still primarily about branding and marketing, we are seeing it being used more and more to explain data. Since technology has enabled data gathering on an industrial scale, a lot of organisations find that they are drowning in data but really missing the skills to make sense of it. That is where storytelling is at is strongest. Storytelling has the unique ability to be qualitative and quantitative at the same time. Thus it allows data be used, but only to make a point, or to add credence to a point, rather than be the point itself.


Paradoxically, at a time when there’s more data, more data journalism, more analysis of data – we’re actually more influenced by emotion and sentiment and feelings. People are thinking in stories. Therefore, companies are realising that they have to speak the language people are speaking.


They might have data, but people don’t speak data, they speak stories.


They think, believe and behave because of the stories. Data deals with facts; stories deal with truth. People behave on the truth they have, not the data they have, We’re qualitative and quantitative beasts; we’re not just data, we’re not just logical. People say we’re in a ‘post-truth’ era; we’re actually in a ‘post-logic’ era. Politics are trumping economics – that’s a fact. Feelings are trumping facts, and sentiment is trumping reason.


The latest wave of interest is also driven by the rise of social media. Because people have so much publishing power at their fingertips, they are communicating and connecting in so many different ways. To do this powerfully, they are using storytelling through videos, photographs and audio.


But storytelling is not a panacea. Yes, it’s getting ‘big’. But just because there are stories everywhere doesn’t mean that they are all important – or even very good for that matter. A bad story is boring; a bad story damages you; a bad story creates confusion rather than clarity. Like music, storytelling is a craft. It can be learned and improved, but like anything of value, it takes work and investment.


More and more companies are using it because of sentiment, because of brands, because of social media, etc. But there is a science, a logic and a craft to stories. If a story doesn’t have engagement, conflict, tension, payoff, jeopardy – it’s not a story. If it doesn’t have a compelling character with a compelling challenge – it’s not a story.

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