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Beyond Numbers and Bullet Points: Tell Your Story

Using narrative to communicate complex information

November 2005

On Wall Street, the phrase “What’s the story?” has been used so often it is a cliché. In asking the question, though, the dealmaker has the right instinct, for the story form is a powerful device for engaging and persuading the listener.

Yet while business professionals tacitly acknowledge the value of the story, they seldom use a narrative framework to communicate with key audiences. The tendency instead is to emphasize numbers, enumerate lists of data points, or offer jargony soundbites. Certainly, decision-makers need as much data as possible to evaluate an opportunity. But while ideally “the numbers speak for themselves,” the reality is that there is no guarantee that the listener will comprehend their implications – or interpret their meaning in the way the speaker intended.

This is where the story comes in – it ties together ideas, establishing meaning and enabling the presenter to interpret and animate numbers and facts. How?

Stories are naturally accessible and memorable

The importance of stories, in all cultures, demonstrates their time-tested power to engage listeners. Storytelling is an intuitive way for the mind to receive, process, and retrieve information – and ultimately act on it. Indeed, cognitive science has shown the value of narrative structures in processing complex and often unrelated data.

While a series of bullet points and charts can provide valuable information, failure to relate this data to a “big picture” is risky, leaving the audience to reach its own conclusions or no conclusion at all. A well-crafted narrative, on the other hand, provides context that gives the overall message greater meaning and impact. It also is more economical, forcing the presenter to focus on pertinent elements and avoid extraneous information. For all of these reasons, the narrative approach is most respectful of the audience.

Stories build relationships

Throughout history, stories have served as cultural glue, whether it is the broad culture of a nation-state, an ethnic group, or a business organization. Narratives create shared meaning that binds people together and strengthens relationships.

In social situations, we frequently turn to stories to help break down barriers and forge connections. But around the conference table, businesspeople seldom use meaningful stories. However, with thoughtful preparation – both in understanding audience expectations and in presenting a story worth telling – it is possible to extend relationship-building to formal business settings.

Stories facilitate decision-making

In business, clearly, the numbers, the facts, and the strategic rationale must be valid. Yet we cannot lose sight of the emotional component of decision-making. Nearly all judgments arise in the context of human intentions and motivations.

Analysts, portfolio managers, and investors seek confidence in management’s vision and its ability to deliver. Counterparties want to feel that the professionals on the other side of a deal are skilled and trustworthy. Customers seek trust in the person selling the product. Employees want to have a role in achieving the firm’s goals.

A clear storyline unites decision-makers, creating a basis for agreement, and building the affinity that is the foundation of great brands. It facilitates decision-making in a way that an unconnected series of facts and numbers cannot.

How to tell a powerful story?

While we all have experienced the power of stories, we may not think about how they sustain our interest. With a command of the basic structure, we can develop narratives that illuminate meaning and foster relationships that lead to decision-making.

For example, imagine a hypothetical merger between healthcare companies. The numbers have been crunched, the data charted and graphed. For the stakeholders, solid evidence of economic and competitive advantage clearly demands consideration. But a compelling story can pull the elements together in a way that is more likely to win approval. Here is one broad-based approach:

While the numbers must support the financial and strategic rationale, it is the narrative framework that makes the rationale clear and generates enthusiasm for the deal.

Succeed in business: Tell your story

Business professionals often associate stories with fiction, long-windedness, and frivolity, assuming that only raw data can convey business rigor. In our experience, the narrative form is none of these things. On the contrary, stories shed light on essential issues, impose structure and efficiency, and are a sophisticated tool for communicating complex information.

In short, stories are powerful aligning tools. They encourage unified thinking and clarity of purpose. So, go beyond the data and beyond the facts: tell your story.

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