June 6, 2017 / Esther Choy

“An irresistible attraction to gecko feet is an occupational hazard for engineers who study how one thing sticks to another.”

This was the intriguing start of an article I read recently. Gecko feet? What do geckos have to do with engineering? I was hooked.

As I read on, I learned the story of Stanford mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot W. Hawkes (now a visiting assistant professor at Stanford). Hawkes and a team of researchers invented  a climbing apparatus that used sticky pads inspired by geckos, which are expert climbers because their feet stick to vertical surfaces.

By the end of the article, I was cheering for Hawkes, Stanford’s resident “Spiderman,” who, as an engineer, is able to chuckle about how impossible it would be for anyone in real life to climb the way Spiderman does.

Why was I so intrigued? Because the author told a story. The beginning planted a hook. And soon, I learned about a likeable protagonist’s quest to climb glass walls.

But was this really necessary? What if the author had started off with this, instead?

The “dry adhesion of gecko setae by van der Waals forces” has been used for a recent project at Stanford University. “Gecko setae are strongly hydrophobic, as predicted for β-keratin structures… The water contact angle (θ) of gecko setae was 160.9° ± 1.4 SD; n = 5. The unusually large contact angle is likely to be caused by the micro-roughness of the seta and skin…”

Now, if you’re thinking of designing synthetic gecko foot hair, this paragraph would be a goldmine. But a general or cross-functional audience would miss the significance of this dense data. And that’s a problem, because good ideas go unnoticed if no one understands them!

To connect with the audience, these data need a story.

When it comes to presenting data, many people think of stories as “extras”— poignant or humorous moments the audience might like but that aren’t actually necessary. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

Data storytelling is crucial because it connects with our audience’s deepest cognitive needs. In a Scientific American post, author Jag Bhalla points out that the human mind is so wired for story that people have a much harder time processing logic outside of story than within one.

Wason Selection Tasks are an example, says Bhalla. When people are asked to choose correct correlations based only on letters and numbers, only 10% can do it. When the same correlations appear in the context of a story, participants have much greater success—sometimes as many as 90% of participants get it right!

Even data scientists, who spend their days steeped in numbers, say that storytelling is a crucial part of their job. “Data scientists want to believe that data has all the answers,” say Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin in Harvard Business Review. “But the most important part of our job is qualitative: asking questions, creating directives from our data, and telling its story.”

How to Tell a Data Story

Did you notice I mentioned I was hooked from the very beginning of the gecko story? The author hooked my attention because I was not expecting to find “gecko feet” and “occupational hazard for engineers” in the same sentence! That element of surprise made me eager to read on.

You want to intrigue and delight your audience from the first moment. Indeed, you’d want to implant a conflict, contrast or contradiction in the very beginning of any story. In my book Let the Story Do the Work, I discuss how to subtly and effectively use these 3Cs to hook your readers right from the start.

In the beginning, the author also introduced us to a protagonist—Elliot W. Hawkes—so we’d start to root for him.Because the gecko article was very short, the author wrapped up soon after the hook. The story stopped short and left me with questions!In every story and presentation, it is important to create a riveting middle section by talking about setbacks and challenges the protagonist faces. As Hawkes and his team developed their climbing rig, I wondered:

  • What did they have to learn?
  • Where did the project fail?
  • How did they recover?

These questions create tension. And guess what else? Each one offers a chance to educate the audience, so you’re subtly working data into the context of your story.

Then, at the end of your story, provide closure.

Sometimes that closure is permanent. Your project might be ready to launch. In that case, you can show how all the loose ends have been tied up and all that remains is for your audience to come and get the product.

Sometimes that closure is temporary, showing how the project is at an exciting (but still developmental) phase. This offers a great lead-in to a request for resources.

Armed with this format, it is much simpler to turn data into the story your audience needs to be able to connect with your message.

If you need to hook your audience, give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

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This article by Esther Choy originally appeared in Interesting Engineering.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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