Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Hollywood Can Teach Analytics Professionals: How to Tell Stories

You might not realize it, but you probably have something in common with the creators of the TV show South Park. 

Analytics yield insights that can have powerful business impact. These insights come from statistics and data mining—processes that are inaccessible to most people. If you want your business to learn and remember, you have to tell a story.

All too often, the communication of an analytic finding reads like a police report: procedural, laden with jargon, and stripped of meaningful business context.

That’s not interesting. People won’t learn from it, and they certainly won’t change their behavior.

How then to get your point across? You need to learn how to tell stories. Data stories.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone know a thing or two about telling a story. They are the creators of South Park, a wildly successful television show which has been on the air for 19 years. Like you, their success depends on telling interesting stories.

In the video clip above, Parker and Stone are speaking to a group of students at NYU on storytelling strategies. Trey tells the students:

We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words “and then” belong between those beats, you’re f***ed. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word “therefore” or “but.”

Data storytellers make this mistake all the time. "We did this…then we tried that…the algorithm showed this…the correlation coefficient is that…our conclusion is...”

This kind of forensic storytelling is boring. It won’t be remembered, and the value of the insight will be lost. Save the procedural detail for an appendix somewhere. People learn from good stories, not lab reports.

As Matt says later in the clip, you need causality to have an interesting story:

But. Because. Therefore.  That gives you the causation between each beat.  And that…that’s a story.

Be sure to watch the entire clip and, if you are so inclined, take some time off for an episode or two of South Park. It just might make you a better data scientist!

The embedded video is from the NY Times ArtsBeat blog post, Hello! Matt Stone and Tray Parker Crash a Class at NYU (September 8, 2011).  Hat tip to Tony Zhou and his Video Essay on F for Fake at the marvelous blog Every Frame a Paining.