Content+ | JoAnn Sciarrino on Storytelling with Data-Driven Content

As the Knight Chair in Digital Advertising and Marketing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, JoAnn Sciarrino is a well-respected thought leader in digital marketing and analytics. She has 25 years of experience as a marketing and advertising executive. During her time at BBDO, a worldwide advertising agency headquartered in New York, Sciarrino advised more than 30 global clients, including AT&T, Starbucks, FedEx and Hyatt.

Sciarrino opened her talk on the power of presenting a brand’s data through storytelling by excitedly explaining that storytelling and data work in tandem. Analytics doesn’t have to glaze the eyes of executives or confuse fellow team members, and it doesn’t operate in isolation. Rather, presenting data in the context of storytelling relays a message that excites and influences business decisions. Data is #winning within the context of storytelling.

When Sciarrino mentions storytelling, she doesn’t do so with figurative language. No, one must examine the data to find an antagonist, protagonist and storyline, she says. Data presentations should follow a narrative arc—yes, that thing you learned about in English class—with data points leading as key characters that point to the climax of the story. The climax—the insight gleaned from the data—should answer several questions: What’s going on? Why is this happening? How did we get here?

“There is always a protagonist and an antagonist, even in data.”

— JoAnn Sciarrino

While storytelling may sound easy, analysts are often inundated with data and can be overwhelmed to find the story theme amongst the mess.

Ten principles help guide this process:

  • Present the data in context.
  • Practice the iceberg method of analysis.
  • Uncover the why in data anomalies.
  • Separate the signal from the noise.
  • Identify and develop facts, then observe and derive insights.
  • Tailor the density of the story to the audience.
  • Follow the classic story arc.
  • Express tension between the antagonist and the protagonist.
  • Dramatize the situation, and how and why the situation changed.
  • Keep it simple.

By following these steps, analysts uncover insights, not just facts. Analysts don’t have to be afraid to look at the anomalies and problems. Rather than reporting problems or wins, analysts use data to tell a broader story, one that touches on all aspects of a brand. Within the context of storytelling, data points come to life to explain problems and successes, and, ultimately, to guide where to go next. Now that’s a good story to tell.

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