SDS 176: The Importance of Storytelling in Data Science - SuperDataScience - Big Data | Analytics Careers | Mentors | Success

SDS 176: The Importance of Storytelling in Data Science


On today’s FiveMinuteFriday episode, we discover how storytelling could help us in our data science career. It’s a simple yet complex way to better understand data. it can even make it more valuable and insightful for other people. But, how so?

Data is just data if we do not effectively visualize and communicate it. Handling it, processing, analyzing data would just be the first part. The demanding and crucial part of the work is how to make these data valuable and insightful for the industries. It’s frustrating. My solution: tap the power of storytelling.

[Storytelling won't go untouched in our career-focused event: DataScienceGO 2018.]

This is what I recently got from watching talks by Ann Marie Houghtailing. She believes that storytelling is a powerful tool to forward your goals. Truth is we remember facts that related to an unforgettable story. Houghtaling says there are 2 ways to convey information: laying out the hard facts and by telling the story.

If we plainly present hard facts, there are two parts of the brain that are activated – the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. Broca’s area is responsible for speech production. This is where our wordplay starts. It helps in moving muscles that are needed when talking. Wernicke’s area, on the other hand, is in charge of speech recognition. It helps us understand what the other person is saying and it helps us comprehend to know how to respond to what has been said.

Telling facts with a story has a completely different effect. A huge part of the brain is activated if we start telling a narrative. Stories make a person imagine, visualize, and feel. The cerebral cortex and the limbic system work together to excite senses, feelings, and logical capabilities.

It sounds very old-fashioned but storytelling is an effective way to engage your audience. They gain insights from you and vice versa. It helps people remember things and comprehend things better.

As data scientists, we don’t just search for facts, we have to explain them to people who are less technical than us. With compelling narratives, they could easily connect a set of data to another one. The brain is easily wired to come up of the actions that should be done to move on. In the end, we all want these data to turn into actionable plans for the future of the society.

Items mentioned in the podcast:


  • Have you ever tried conveying facts to anyone through telling it as a story? How did it work?
  • Download The Transcript
  • Music Credit: Lighthouse by Ghost'n'Ghost [Argofox]


Full Podcast Transcript

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Welcome back to the SuperDataScience Podcast. This is FiveMinuteFriday, and today we're talking about storytelling in data science.

So just recently I was watching a compilation of talks by Ann marie Houghtailing. So Ann marie is an author and a public speaker. And what I found interesting in this compilation is one talk where she was talking specifically about storytelling. This was not necessarily related to data science, just about conversations and how we talk and engage with people, and how we get others to understand our message and remember it.

And so what I found interesting was that she said there's two types, two ways of going about explaining something and conveying information. One way is just the hard facts, just conveying facts, data, information for a person to grasp and understand and comprehend. And in that case, when you are just conveying facts to somebody, what actually happens is there's only two parts of the brain that are activated at that point in time. One part is called the Broca's area and the second part is called the Wernicke's area.

So Broca's area is the part of the brain which is responsible for language production, where we actually can create words and actually say things, whereas Wernicke's area is the part of the brain that is responsible for language comprehension, when we take in words and process them into information, into things, like data, that is going to be stored in our brain, so we're actually understanding what is being said. So only two parts of the brain are active when you're telling somebody facts, when you're exchanging facts with somebody.

On the other hand, if you tell somebody a story, if you make them excited, if you make them engaged with the story, if you make them imagine things, if you make them sorta try to understand not just the facts, but understand how things feel, how things look, how things might smell, and so a huge number of parts of the brain are all of a sudden activated. For instance, I've got them right here. She states that the amygdala is activated, the part of the brain responsible for visual images, part of the brain responsible for memories of our experiences, part of the motor cortex, emotions, smells, and other parts of the brain are all of a sudden activated.

And a great example of that is if you tell somebody 10 random facts, or let's say you name for somebody 10 of the tallest buildings in the world, and you tell them how high they are and which order they go. And you just tell them those facts and then you ask them to reproduce those facts like three minutes later. They will probably get like three or four of those right out of 10. On the other hand, if you give somebody those 10 facts, but you support it with a story, with some charts and graphs, with some visual representations, some, like make them imagine something happening, something going on. And then you ask them to reproduce those same facts in three minutes, you're gonna get much more right. They might not get 10 out of 10, but they might get like seven or eight right, because all of a sudden they had a story behind why this building is taller than that building, or you know, who constructed them. Or it could even be an imaginary story of somebody running across these buildings and jumping from one to the other, and which order they go and so on.

So in that sense, all of a sudden, a story helps people remember things, helps people comprehend things better. And that's exactly how memory masters are able to remember lots and lots of facts. For instance, a couple of episodes ago on the show, we had Anthony Metivier, who actually trains people how to use their memory better, and he shared some tips on the podcast. And that is what exactly he does. He goes through stories.

And so now we're bringing all of that back to data science. How is that related? Well, in data science, all of the time, we don't just search for facts and give insights, right? We don't just create insights. We have to convey those insights. We have to explain them to people who are less technical than us, or just business decision makers or managers or colleagues. We have to explain those insights. And the first impulse that we always have, or usually people have is just to present the facts, just supply the facts. But what if you take those facts and you put them into a story. Not an imaginary story, but a story of what's, what the facts mean for the company, how, what the facts mean for the customers, what journey you personally went through when you were discovering and uncovering those facts. And you help people comprehend those facts through all those different areas of the brain. So not just the Wernicke's area that is responsible for language comprehension just 'cause you're supplying facts. But you get them to feel, to see, to taste, to smell all these different things. You know, you don't have to engage all the parts of the brain with your story. But the more you engage, the more, the easier it's gonna be for people to comprehend what you're conveying, and understand it, and retain that information.

So that's the power of storytelling in data science from a scientific point of view. And I challenge you to try it out sometime this weekend. It doesn't have to be in data science. It can be in anything. Whenever you're trying to convey some fact to somebody, stop yourself and try it through a story. And even if you don't have the situation where you need to convey facts, try it out, just for practice. Get your friend or relative and sit them down, and play this game, where you can just come up with some random facts. Look up the top 10 tallest buildings in the world or something like that, and explain it to them, but not just through facts but through a story. And practice that. And then next week, see how you can do that at work.

So that was storytelling in data science. Very powerful. One of the core components of storytelling in data science is visualization, is creating images. And on that note, what I wanted to say is next week, look out for something special. We are relaunching. Right now, we are in the process of reworking, remastering all of our Tableau courses. Tableau is a visualization tool. So next week, you will hear from us about the relaunch of these courses. And if you're interested in upgrading your visualization skills with the latest Tableau software, then look out for that. There'll be emails flying out and around next week all about Tableau 10. And that can help you in visualization, which is a component of storytelling.

On that note, I hope you enjoyed today's podcast and I look forward to seeing you back here next time. Until then, happy analyzing.

Kirill Eremenko
Kirill Eremenko

I’m a Data Scientist and Entrepreneur. I also teach Data Science Online and host the SDS podcast where I interview some of the most inspiring Data Scientists from all around the world. I am passionate about bringing Data Science and Analytics to the world!

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