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Storytelling with data
Blog - Myra Cannon

Myra Cannon

Director of People Science, Enablement

Imagine sitting down to write your autobiography. As you start, your publisher informs you they want just one number instead of words. 

This is an absurdly unfair (albeit make-believe) task. Telling your entire life story in one number would be incredibly limiting. Whatever the number, your readers would demand more: What are your dreams and aspirations? What big decisions have shaped your life?

Despite the challenges of numerical shorthand, it’s oftentimes how we communicate in the workplace – hiring rates, performance targets, engagement scores – the list goes on.

Engagement surveys are a particularly relevant example of how we can miss the opportunity to go beyond the numbers. We need to share why these scores matter within the organization's context and how they might help or hinder the organization from achieving its goals.

To best bring your employee engagement survey results to life, here’s our guide to storytelling with data, built around the five foundational elements of a narrative.

Guide to storytelling with data

There are five simple steps to storytelling with data, which you can approach through the lens of the five foundational elements of a narrative.

1. Audience

First, consider your audience. They’re the people you’re telling the story for. This seemingly small decision will have ripple effects throughout the following elements.

Often, I hear people who have failed at telling a story say, “They just don’t get it.” It’s our job as storytellers to make the audience “get it.” So your first step is to decide on your audience. This could be the CEO, Executive Leadership Team, Senior Leadership, Managers, or all employees. Then, you need to get inside their heads.

The following six questions will help you learn more about your audience.

  1. What ‘language’ do they speak? (Are they energized by tangible plans or the bigger picture?)
  2. What are their aspirations?
  3. Are they: champions, supporters, neutrals, blockers, or critics?
  4. How would you describe their biggest challenges? (What do you frequently hear them saying?)
  5. What decisions do they need to make for the company?
  6. How might you help with those decisions?

Once you’ve answered the above, remember them as you craft your story.

2. Main characters

The audience is who you’re speaking to, and the main characters are who or what you’re speaking about. When discussing survey results, leading with your main characters, – your people – reinforces the message that you’re putting people first as a company. Data should play a supporting, not a leading, role in your story.

To do this well, you should generally focus on (in this order):

  1. People
  2. Abstract ideas
  3. Things

When people fill out an employee survey, it’s a personal and sometimes vulnerable act. Presenting data in an aggregated, detached way (i.e., numbers-only storytelling) separates the person from the results. Starting your data-driven story with the people you’re addressing helps make it relatable.

For example:

Instead of saying, “Our engagement score is 50%,” start saying, “50% of people here are engaged.”
Instead of “Our manager feedback score is at 65%,” try saying, “Two out of three employees told us that managers provide useful feedback on their performance.”

3. Aspiration

What is your audience trying to achieve? Communicate a worthy mission and aspirational goals when unpacking survey results. Framing your results in the context of what your people are trying to achieve again lets them know you are putting people first. It says, “We’ve heard you, and we’re crafting this goal based on your feedback.” Use specifics when talking about aspirational goals.

For example:

Instead of saying “We want to achieve 100% participation with our manager training,”

Start saying, “We recently learned from our last engagement survey that the most engaged employees get frequent feedback that helps guides their performance and development. We’d like to help all managers be effective in their roles; we will be rolling out training to help equip managers with the resources and skills required to lead highly engaged teams at this company.”

4. Challenges, Data, and Consequences

In every survey, you’ll identify a challenge or area for improvement. This could be something like turnover or something specific to a department. Sometimes the challenge is simply maintaining the positive culture you already have. When presenting these challenges, think about what data is pointing to this challenge and what might be the result of that challenge. Explaining these components when you talk about results will make them more impactful and show the need for action.

For example:

Instead of saying, “Turnover is high,”

Start saying, “2 out of 3 new hires in engineering leave the company after 8-10 months, making it difficult to execute against aggressive product release timelines.”

5. Communicating a way forward 

Communicate how you'll address your defined challenges when discussing your survey results. This shows that people’s feedback will be acted upon after each survey, making them more involved in the survey process. Note, this doesn’t mean you need to have the answer just yet; you’re taking steps to determine the next step.

For example, if learning and development come up as a focus area, instead of immediately developing and deploying a program, your next step might be holding a focus group with employees to fully understand their skill gaps.  Ensure to include what you’ve learned above and focus on your main characters, their aspirations, and the challenges you will tackle.

Putting it all together

Now that you understand each of the five story components, use the story spine to weave it together. Remember, storytelling is like any other skill. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Start small, like in your team meeting, then work your way up to presenting at all hands!

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