“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one .” —Flannery O’Connor
My college English professor once told me that I wasn’t an interesting read.
His task was to teach me the tactical aspects of writing, but he also felt—as my audience—that he had the duty to critique the content of my papers to help me reach my full potential.
It was tough to hear, but it helped me think from the audience’s perspective. It moved me from, “This sounds like something fun to write about,” to, “What would appeal to him?” It paid off.
My next paper was based on something he’d said in passing about an event in history many believe never happened. Using my words, I grabbed him by the hand and took him on a journey through the data I’d collected while navigating the paths, structures and remnants of Auschwitz.
That paper garnered me an A.
As he walked through the aisles passing out the graded papers, he told the class that one student managed to do something no other student had ever done before—make him cry.
When he handed back my stapled pages, he leaned in and said: “That was you. You made me feel what it was like to live through such a horrific time in history. And that, Bree, is what will make you interesting to your readers.”
It was a great lesson to learn and one that taught me that, at the most basic level, knowing why an audience should care is a great place to begin any story. The next challenge for many of us is driving past those roadblocks that keep us stuck in one place.
Below I’ve highlighted a few areas where stories can hit the wall and leave a storyteller frustrated. They’re the top three questions I get asked about how to tell a story with data. I made sure to include a few examples for inspiration:
1. Where do I start?
Look at your data—you may be surprised at what stories are waiting within your analytics.
Insurance companies aren’t necessarily the sexiest brands out there, but they’ve managed to create a lot of online buzz. How do they do it? They have access to a plethora of data, for sure, but data only get you so far. They’ve also uncovered the secret to mining data to tell stories that educate and resonate.
United Healthcare is a great example. Each of its 30- to 60-second spots highlights one of those all-important insurance codes while helping people understand how that code relates to their everyday lives.
I might never attempt to run and jump into my spouse’s arms, but I did laugh a little thinking that someone must have tried it at least once.
Mining data can lead to interesting results and stories worth sharing.
Lead with a story showing the audience how your product or service improves their lives.
I gain inspiration from so many sources, including a favorite: TV commercials. They’re a perfect channel for uncovering how others are sharing stories about products. Consider the latest from the Paper + Packaging Board.
Now you wouldn’t think a commercial for a box could draw tears to someone’s eyes, but it did. I should have expected it when the opening line was, ” What does it take to stay close to a dad who is oceans away?”
It tells a story of a boy and his father and how much the boy was missing his dad. Though subtle in its execution, the ad shared how paper and packaging “make the distance disappear.”
Helping people see how your product or service can enhance their lives is a solid technique for drawing an audience in. So give that product a supporting role, not the lead.
3. How do I tell a story with data?
Combine your words with images and data visualizations to tell a story.
A peer passed along an interesting find just the other day. Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds) on HowMuch.net. The data they used to design the visual story spanned 15 years and came to life through an animated GIF.
You can quickly see (through colors and animation) where the unemployment crisis hit hardest, as well as how close to 15 percent unemployment a few states got during that timeframe.
Charts and graphs are fine when used to share comparisons, but if you want the data to be memorable, think through how you can design that information in a storyline format. It becomes easier to understand and to share.
Doing a little homework never hurt any good storyteller; it’ll help you understand what resonates in order to create that emotional connection with your audience. Who knows? You might even stumble onto a little inspiration that will help you break through those roadblocks.
A version of this article originally appeared on Social Media Today.