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Tell me a story

In business we are suffocated by reports. We have reports coming out of our ears. We are lucky if they are read and even luckier if they are acted upon. Why is it that reports don't seem to work?

The problem with reports is that they are boring. For sure they may contain a wealth of material and probably lots of insights, but in the data overloaded world in which we live, we need stories.

Stories have many similarities to reports. They contain information; they have an introduction, middle and end. However, stories are different in important ways. They are a narrative in which the flow of information is controlled. It is released so that it keeps us interested. The story teller uses surprise, tension and twists and turns to keep our attention. Time is spent setting the scene and developing characters. The storyteller builds engagement with the audience.

In business we are well-positioned to write stories. The basis of a good story is a storyline – an objective that is based on good information. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our obligation is to state facts and share data. For sure we need facts, but the facts need anecdotes to bring points home. This is how Hans Roling, a statistician, began one of his famous TED talks

“About 10 years ago, I took on the task of teaching global development to Swedish undergraduate students. That was after having spent about 20 years, together with African institutions, studying hunger in Africa. So I was sort of expected to know a little about the world. And I started, in our medical university, Karolinska Institute, an undergraduate course called Global Health. But when you get that opportunity, you get a little nervous. I thought, these students coming to us actually have the highest grade you can get in the Swedish college system, so I thought, maybe they know everything I'm going to teach them. So I did a pretest when they came. And one of the questions from which I learned a lot was this one: "Which country has the highest child mortality of these five pairs?"“

If you have never seen it, take a look on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVimVzgtD6w&t=998s :

Roling’s report (sorry, his story) was about child mortality around the world. At the outset he grabbed our attention by relating the results of a quiz he carried out with his students and fellow professors. It showed that their knowledge of child mortality was no better than that of chimpanzees. He kept hitting us with fact after fact but as these were supported by humorous insights we were mesmerised for the next 20 minutes. No wonder his talk has been watched 3 million times.

You don't become a skilled story teller overnight. Think about the reports you write at the present. You probably use an introduction in which you describe the background to the situation, the objectives and the method. This is likely followed by detailed findings; probably more than is necessary. And at the end there may be a page or two of conclusions and if we are lucky, some recommendations. This is a traditional reporting layout.

You would dismiss a story if it was boring. People dismiss reports for the same reason. Reports can be turned into stories by re-adjusting the introduction, the middle and the end. The introduction must make an impact. It must make the reader want to turn the pages and find out more. And the stuff in the middle is vital but it should be woven into a series of implications so that by the time the audience gets to the end they arrive at the conclusion for themselves. It is the story teller’s task to make the end memorable. The report is nothing if it is quickly forgotten.

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