Stories, Not Data, Drive Actions

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Inspiration May 11, 2017

Stories, Not Data, Drive Actions

Daniel Bliley
Daniel Bliley is a national award-winning marketing executive with over 15 years experience working in the automotive, healthcare, banking, sports, and mobile technology industries. He is currently the head of marketing at Passport in Charlotte.

By now most of us have watched Jimmy Kimmel’s moving video. It’s an extraordinary special show, written by an incredibly brave host.

This tweet stopped my Twitter scrolling. Sent by Bess Kalb, it was a clear advertisement to watch the late night host. Bess Kalb is an Emmy-nominated writer for late night television. Odds are, if you have watched Jimmy Kimmel, you have heard her work. On Twitter, @bessbell  is incredibly witty. She loves to respond to Donald Trump, often times in hilarious quips. I enjoy her commentary, so I gladly followed her instructions. Call it curiosity. Call it FOMO. I was not missing it.

On May 1, 2017, Jimmy Kimmel opened his show unlike most episodes. Instead of his normal comedy routine, Jimmy opened up about a very dramatic week in his life. The birth—and almost death—of his son. It was a pull-on-the-heart-strings-tear-jerker kind of story, where he almost lost his newborn son to a heart defect. Through tears and emotional pauses, he beautifully narrated the life-saving support nurses and doctors provided. Against increasing odds, the medical staff was able to successfully save his life. A quiet audience was then shown personal photos of Jimmy with his new son asleep on his chest, followed by “oohs,” “aahs,” and applause.

It was emotional. It was sobering. It made you feel something. Despite his fame and fortune, the story Jimmy told made him real. He was just a normal man fighting through a painful family experience. We can all relate.

Kimmel, with the audience emotionally wide-open, then pivoted to talk about how families, especially with babies born carrying pre-existing conditions, are at risk of missing care under proposed healthcare policies. He urged viewers not to lose sight of how these decisions impact real families. He convincingly showed that people deserve care no matter their financial, social, or health status. He appealed to us not as democrats or republicans, but as humans. He won us over through story. A very authentic story. How can we, as fellow Americans, sit at home and do nothing while babies, like his—or yours, go through life without coverage due to no fault of their own.

The fact is that 50% of Americans could have pre-existing conditions. That means 1 out of every 2 people you see might not get the care they need depending on how our government votes. 129 million Americans could be at risk, including some of the most vulnerable groups.

Now ask yourself…what appeals to you more? Those big, broad numbers? Or Jimmy’s story? Which version converts to potential action? The problem is that numbers have little effect on most people’s emotions. Numbers are cold. They’re faceless. Jimmy’s story, however, makes it real. It’s not millions at risk—it’s his son. It’s your daughter. It’s your niece or nephew. Through storytelling, data is given a face. The story gives you a reason to care.

Why Stories Matter

The rise in technology has given birth to a new industry in marketing and a new breed of marketer. Big data companies have broadcast that in order to compete in the future, you need complex software to solve complex problems. Of course, this story helps them make their numbers. Nonetheless, data analysts as marketers are now suddenly in hot demand. They crunch numbers. They build models. The keep dashboards. C-level types eat it up. It all looks good…on paper. 

The problem is data doesn’t move us. We’re living in an age where facts and figures seem to matter less and less. We’ve grown weary of data spinsters and manipulated reports. What’s more, our brains are not wired to respond to data sets. Our brains are built for stories. We don’t identify with data the same way we identify with characters that overcome mounting odds. Stories motivate us. They can actually change our behavior. Focusing too heavily on data can keep us blind and unwilling to change.

In the book Shattered, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes detail the tension between Robby Mook and Bill Clinton. Robby led Hillary’s Presidential campaign. Bill, of course, is a former President. To Robby, the data was clear—Hillary was ahead and winning the poles. It looked inevitable that America would elect the first female President. But Bill Clinton felt uneasy. He urged Mook that regardless of the data, something didn’t feel right. His instinct told him something different. He listened to the people. He looked at the emotional side of what voters were feeling. The data was there, but it wasn’t the complete story. He wanted the campaign to change tone and focus on areas the data wasn’t revealing. Robby insisted everyone trust the data. Bill’s advice never panned out. Neither did Hillary’s campaign.

For all the data, facts, and figures, what people lacked was a story. Voters didn’t receive any compelling information. They never felt connected or engaged. Sure, data can be helpful. But it can also mislead and limit growth. By itself, data is insufficient. It needs to be analyzed and packaged in meaningful ways. Storytelling can then bring it to life.

It’s why IBM is hiring screenwriters. The data is surely an important part for a company like IBM. It helps track and identify trends. It drives personalization and helps optimize operations for maximum performance. The company has even built Watson, an intelligent software made to analyze data and predict behavioral patterns. But if you can’t translate those data points into something that connects with the audience, all the number crunching and artificial intelligence in the world won’t matter.

It’s why pharmaceutical companies are creating content teams. In a crowded market where consumers are pummeled by messages of side effects, businesses like Abbvie are focused on engaging patients with authentic content. Stories help it stand apart and deliver products across the globe while improving brand equity.

It’s why Marketo, a leading marketing automation company, rebranded from marketing science to storytelling. While Marketo has helped clients analyze data from various channels to produce ROI, the company acknowledges that storytelling is just as important for brands to compete in the future.

It’s why KPMG used storytelling to recruit and retain top talent, leading to 90% of employees surveyed feeling an increased pride in the company. Keeping a motivated workforce helps it compete against other accounting and consulting firms, ultimately leading to more client wins.

Storytelling isn’t a replacement for data, but it should be the foundation for your business strategy. It can’t be used in isolation or spun without context. But like an author that uses research for a bestseller, your marketing team needs talented human capital to write a narrative that actually engages consumers, builds brand loyalty, and gains wallet-share.

Brands are creating powerful, story driven campaigns that are reaching customers and driving results. From Burt’s Bees to Nike, sincere stories are helping companies win. It’s what led to the rise of Apple and Airbnb and how Dove resurrected its brand with massive audience engagement. It’s so powerful that billionaire businessman Richard Branson deemed this past March “storytelling month” on virgin.com.

If the story data from brand success still isn’t enough proof, ditch the numbers and go watch the Kimmel replay from May 1st. Just make sure to bring a tissue.