Storytelling > data

31 January 2016

The more I spend time working with data, the more I’m becoming convinced that the most important tool we have in our advocacy or social change toolbelts, is storytelling. Why? There are countless examples of when “data” has proved a certain thing without a shadow of a doubt - but people’s behaviour has not changed as a consequence. What’s often missing there, is compelling storytelling. “Data” on its own, doesn’t change a thing - not to mention its subjectivity, despite being perceived as “truth”, way too often.

As much as we’d love to think that policy making can be “evidence-based”, in reality, decision making is irrational.* Every day, I work with, and come across, organisations who are aiming at influencing and changing people’s decisions to push for positive social change.

But it seems as though among all the data hype, we’ve lost sight of what actually changes people’s minds and behaviour. I’ve definitely been guilty of this - thinking that somehow, something proven with data will be listened to more closely, simply because there is quantitative information in there. Instead, we need to focus on how that information is being conveyed - essentially, what story is being told, and how to make that as compelling as possible.

But realising storytelling is incredibly important is seemingly just the beginning. When I started my podcast last year, it was because I kept hearing convincing and compelling stories being told in audio format, and I wanted to do the same. Explaining complex technology topics, with a dash of history, analysis and critique, sounds like a dream come true to me - but, unsurprisingly, I’m a long way off from making podcasts that sound anywhere near as good as the ones that inspired me to start!

This is where Ira Glass’ great advice on the difference between having good taste, and actual skills, completely hit the spot for me:

It’s somewhat cliché, but just as he describes, I had indeed been wondering why my own attempts at podcasting were so far off. Now, I realise, I just need to embrace being bad at them for a couple of years, and not let that put me off from doing it.

With that in mind, my resolution for 2016 is just that: to learn about storytelling, and to keep doing it, no matter what it sounds/reads/looks like. (aka= to spend 2016 being pretty bad at storytelling. And proud.)

To help me with this, I’ve picked up a couple of resources that are proving to be very useful:

  • Jessica Abel’s beautiful graphic novel “Out on the Wire” about the ‘storytelling secrets’ of lots of renowned, US-based radio shows. (Note: delivery costs outside of the US are pretty massive - if you can, getting someone to bring it to you from the US might be a much easier option!)
  • …and her accompanying podcast, which is a fantastic step-by-step walk through of what it takes to make a good story. Each episode has a challenge at the end of it, and a workshop episode where they critique different ideas. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, not least for the wise words, but also for the structured approach.
  • Alex Blumberg’s Power your Podcast with Storytelling course on Creative Live. It costs $80 USD to gain access to a set of 21 videos and worksheets, which together, talk through the elements of a good audio story.

But - and this is a big ‘but’- all of those resources are coming from a very similar, US-based school of thought. Though I’ve yet to come across good learning materials from other regions, or even other styles, I’m trying to compensate against this bias by listening to podcasts/other media from other regions, like:

  • Audiomatic - a selection of narrative podcasts from India
  • BBC World Service Documentaries - these are just fantastic, incredibly well done, and covering such a broad range of topics, cultures and ideas.
  • LuchadorasTV - video interviews from Mexico with inspiring women activists, academics, journalists, and more - with the uniting factor that they’re working in human rights.

..and I’m always open for more suggestions. So, here’s to a year full of not-very-good stories - bear with me!

* A big hat tip to Giulio for planting - and cultivating - this line of thought!


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