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Big Data and the Science of Storytelling

Big data, and the analytics that make sense of the exponentially growing volumes of it, seem to be top-of-mind across the business landscape and increasingly central to both strategic and tactical decision making today. In certain realms, marketing comes immediately to mind, it possesses the potential to become the central unifying force that moves the practice further from art and closer to science. But, with big data has come big challenges in using the data for practical and impactful purposes.

That is why telling stories built upon data and analytics will become the critical manner for articulating the value buried deep in the lines and columns of huge stores of data. Narrative has been foundational for communication since words were first spoken. It is the way to simplify and make sense of complexity in our lives, our businesses and our world.

Storytelling is central to the human experience. As humans, we are wired to understand the connection between cause and effect via stories. We think in narratives all day long. Whatever our physical world may look like and however we choose to move through it, it is the narratives we create and pass along that bind us and the places we inhabit in a level of coherence that enables progress toward goals, actions and results. Of course, this is not new. What is a more recent element of the story making and telling process is the ability to incorporate the immense amounts of data that we can now generate and aggregate into a data-driven narrative through the use of analytics.

Data tells you what’s happening. Stories tell you why it matters.

This is where “the rubber meets the road” in the world of big data. Data is inert until animated by the mathematical models that transform it into elements of insight that can be woven into a narrative that makes the complex simple and the overwhelming into something digestible and understandable. With a data-driven story, hundreds of millions of rows can be distilled into a unique story. By following that narrative, it’s much easier to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. The data and corresponding analysis can tell you what’s happening, but you need a story to articulate the importance and the potential impact, allowing you to make decisions that are more targeted and supported.

But, storytelling is about more than simply understanding and articulating one’s world, though that is critically important. Stories that incorporate data and analytics can be catalysts for change, driven by the insights and actions that result from “crunching the numbers”. The impact of big data can be extraordinary with the potential to influence much of the way things will be done in the future but that requires moving out of the realm of the quants. Telling the stories, with data and analytics, can communicate the who, what, how, when and where of the business, creating context for making strategic and tactical decision, both big and small. To tell a great story with data and analytics, data scientists must begin to think like storytellers.

Decision science has been around for decades but computing power, communication speeds and smart technologies have driven the need for better analytic tools. Big data is big and getting bigger and our methods and means of analysis have become faster, finer and more robust and that creates both opportunity and threat for the enterprise. Extract insights from the data and craft a story that resonates with key constituencies and you create competitive advantage. Bore them with spreadsheets and charts and you just may find yourself out of business.

Big data and analytics have now entered the realm of must have for the enterprise to realize the greatest success. Storytelling has always been thus. The combination has the potential to change the way we do everything. But the holy grail has to be the story; the story that communicates what is happening in the business and what can and needs to be done to address the challenges and exploit the opportunities that the analysis uncovers.

Perhaps most importantly, though, stories motivate action. And in today’s world of information overload, it’s crucial to be able to make informed, actionable decisions based on all of your data.

By using analytics to create a compelling story, big data can become the transformational force that it’s promise has suggested it can be.

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