January 9, 2018, by Erik Larson

The Neuroscience of Data Storytelling

As a relatively new concept for most people, data storytelling is frequently misconstrued as pretty charts and infographics. It is the story part of storytelling that most of us are missing.

What's so big about telling stories?

As it turns out, nearly everything. As you'll see below stories are where the magic happens, which has recently been shown to produce some staggering results. Consider this one:

of people can recall based on stories
of people can recall based on statistics

Source: Chip Heath, Stanford University link to article

Yowsers. With only 5% of us able to retain information based on stats and facts, clearly we need to rethink how we are communicating with our target audience. Let's take a look at some of the underlying reasons for this wide gap in our ability to retain information when conveyed through stories.

How Stories Help Us Learn

1. Engaging More of the Brain. When packaged into a story, your fact set has a bridge to the emotional part of the brain. What neuroscientists observed is that factual information only engages two parts of the brain, Broca's and Wernicke's area. This is in stark contrast to the spectrum of other parts of the brain engaged by a story, including movement, smell and emotion. People hear statistics, but people feel stories. For more on this check out this Forbes article.

2. Calming Our Inner Skeptic. As it turns out, when people are listening to a story, they enter a state of mind where their brains process information in different ways. Specifically, our brains are less likely to identify false points in stories compared to being presented with persuasive arguments or raw facts. I guess we all want to hear a good story, and we're willing to lower our guards enough to reach a satisfying ending :)

3. Remember We Aren't Rational. A related point has to do with how humans make decisions: emotionally. We like to think of ourselves as hard rationalists, but it simply isn't true. Many good salespeople already understand this point, yet few of them have effectively incorporated stories into the pitch. You may not think of yourself as a salesperson but when we're seeking outcomes, remember that stories inspire emotion.

Here is a great example of a economic development data story

We would love to hear from you! At eImpact we work with a wide range of organizations who seek to tell better stories with data.