To understand how data storytelling works, devour the extraordinary film, The Beatles: Get Back.
Apart from watching the creativity of John, Paul, George and Ringo, it’s a perfect example of using data to tell a persuasive story.
Just the other day in one of my storytelling training sessions, the Head of Insight at one of the High Street’s biggest brands asked this: ‘What if you don’t have the data to tell the story that decision-makers want to hear?’
The journalist in me would have answered — wrongly — by suggesting that sometimes you need to use opinion to drive home the message, picking only the pieces of data that back that opinion. Read any newspaper columnist to see how that works (or doesn’t!).
This is exactly what The Beatles filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg did in his original 1970 documentary, Let It Be. As with Get Back, the film focused on the lead-up to the group’s dramatic final 42-minute performance on the roof of the Apple building in central London and subsequent break-up. He knew The Beatles were finished so cut a film that showed how and why it happened. He had his story and then used only the pieces of data to support that.
Lord Of The Rings film director Peter Jackson has done the opposite. He has used his storytelling gut instinct rather than creative spin. The New Zealander has sifted through 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio to discover material — data — that shows an even more compelling story. The Beatles were a joy to be with. They laughed incessantly, loved being with each other, achieved greatness because of each other.
Yes, Paul’s patronising control-freakery is there, as is George’s petulance, John’s heroin-induced laziness, Ringo’s boredom and mutual antagonism. But Jackson allows the data to show a far more emotional story that is not wedded to a pre-conceived notion about the demise of the world’s greatest band. It is, instead, a story of why and how they were the world’s greatest band.
This is the answer I should have given that insights manager.
The data to a great story is always there. Somewhere. You need to look harder for it. Don’t try and tell the story you think they want to hear and squeeze the data into it. That’s spin, not storytelling.
Instead, use your storymaking gut instinct and interpret the data more fully so that you can find the narrative spine around which you can piece together your data.
In this case, four men who love each other and what they’re doing but who are frightened that it’s all about to end. They suspect this might be their last hurrah and we’re watching that inevitability gradually dawn upon them during 21 days in the studio.
The story is about that hurrah rather than the acrimony we’ve all been led to believe fuelled those sessions that inspired the Abbey Road and Let It Be albums. The data persuades us to change our minds.
Great storyfinding, storymaking and storytelling can do that. In business as much as in art.