Hidden figures: When stories make sense of numbers

I am detail-oriented with a love of numbers. Facts, data and statistics are like a big, warm, comforting, fuzzy evidence-blanket to me.

A few years ago, I was asked to pull together a report from a survey. Never in my working life had I had so much fun (#nerdalert). I revelled in analysing the numbers, working out what they might mean, and providing my insights. Once I was done, I sent it on and didn’t hear anything more about it.

At the time, I wasn’t bothered – I had had my fun pulling it together. But as I produced more reports over time, it was less and less satisfying as nothing seemed to come from it. After a while, I couldn’t even remember any of the key takeaways myself!

Sacrificing detail for clarity

I had not yet grasped that there are so many reports competing for attention. Or that it can be difficult to stay engaged throughout a report and retain page after page of all those brilliant precise numbers (often 2 or 3 decimal places), and instantly determine which are the interesting figures and what they might mean. I had never really given much thought on how I could make the reports more ‘digestible’. It horrified me that I might have to sacrifice some numbers (and there were lots of them) to help get key messages across.

Then I began working with someone with a love of stories – the qualitative to my quantitative, the Yang to my Yin(dta). It took many discussions and debates about the impact of stories and emotions for me to understand just how powerful story-telling is to bring numbers to life – make order out of chaos, be memorable and inspiring, and bring about real, lasting change.

We began working together on a project and I slowly began to relax my stance on ‘more is always better’. Taking a step back, I made a conscious effort to understand what story I wanted to tell and which numbers would support that story.

Here is an example – a short story, if you will. In 2015, we ran a Student Technology Survey and below are the results of one of the questions we asked about the locations in which students use their various devices:

Where do you usually use these devices?
College/ campus
Public transport
Other spaces (cafe, park…)

It probably took you a while to look at that table, find the interesting percentages, interpret what they might mean and come up with a single sentence that would sum it all up.

But what if I simply told you: ”Only the smartphone is truly mobile, it goes everywhere – the park, college, train and home. All other devices, even the mobile ones, typically stay at home.”

Much easier, right?

It is also more memorable, and much quicker to communicate to a colleague or manager in that ‘elevator pitch’ moment when you have 30 seconds to catch their attention. You might even buy enough time to tell the rest of the story about how smartphones are used by students for all kinds of learning activities, whether directed by teachers or not.

For me, this story-telling approach is still an ongoing, deliberate, thoughtful process. It is easy to fall back into producing a dot-point list of numbers and assume the reader will immediately understand what they mean and independently come up with the same story.  I encourage you to find the story you want to tell, determine your key points and just as importantly, think about what you want people to do as a result of your story.

This post was inspired by Ann Wilson’s talk on Evaluating without numbers: Exploration of a story based evaluation method , which serves as another reminder for me to make sure I’m not having too much fun with numbers!

Keep an ear out for what’s emerging from the first global Student Technology Survey being run across Navitas.