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Why we need to learn to make good stories out of bad data

Ever since I made the transition from journalist to consultant, I’ve felt liberated by not feeling part of a hierarchy. I’m asked to do things not because of a title but because I like to think I’m good at doing those things.

And judging people by what they do rather than who they are has pushed me in unexpected directions, one of them being my work with insight and data teams to help them tell more compelling stories. Taking the skills of a journalist and transplanting them into an entirely different industry. One that shares a love of and trust in facts but sometimes struggles to tell the kinds of stories – concise, meaningful, relevant stories - that make for better and faster decisions.

One way of doing that is to follow the bad news, not just the good. To see that negatives are sometimes more interesting and instructive than positives. And to focus on what isn’t working rather than always applaud each other for what is.

I had this exact conversation with my CEO friend the other day. You may well know my friend’s name, you’ll certainly know the name of the company they led. Just before lockdown this friend bowed out after an incredibly successful stint and has been trying to ‘figure things out’, as we all inevitably do after leaping (or getting pushed) off the career cliff.

After the obligatory and uninspiring headhunter feeding frenzy, an interesting job offer plonked into their lap. Another great company but an undefined role that is far away from the boardroom. ‘I know it’s a great opportunity Grant,’ my friend said, ‘but it’s not on the level I was at. I’ll be dealing with people quite low down.’ 

Perfect, I said. This is a chance to find out what’s really happening in the places that matter, where you've been protected from the realities for too long. Take the job, learn from it and do something with it. You already know how to make things work, how to enact solutions. But you probably don’t quite understand what happens when things don’t work. Where the blockages and holes are, why people don’t or can’t do what they’re expected to do, what prevents effective teamwork. Up on the top floor, you saw how things worked but you didn’t always experience why they didn’t. The short-term instincts of your stakeholders to present you with good news shielded you from the bad.

Storytelling is a brilliant way to show negative data in a way that makes you want to take positive action. Bad can inspire if you utilise certain techniques – focusing on what matters to the audience, honing things down to a compelling line, offering takeaways that actually mean something rather than just tick the same old boxes.

It’s something I’m looking forward to talking about at a global conference in a few days – the ESOMAR Insights Festival where I’ll be sharing my thoughts about how journalism can be a powerful tool for the insights, data and marketing industries. And a brilliant means of creating more empowering collaborations, as I have experienced with colleagues at Truth Consulting.

In fact, I’m convinced that that will be one of the positives brought out by this pandemic – offices harden hierarchies, siloes and cliques whereas remote working democratises it. If you’re good at something, you will succeed regardless of who you know, how extrovert you might be or even where you sit.

Our Covid-scarred working cultures will, I hope, feel more collaborative because of technology. And by working together in a different way, we won’t fear telling and hearing bad news. Instead, we’ll positively embrace it.

For more information about the ESOMAR Insights Festival, click here.


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