Storytelling: 5 Tips and Tricks – From Data to Story

Irina Dimitriade, Senior Research Executive, gives her account on her recent experiences with reporting data through storytelling, giving her top tips and tricks on how to tackle this creative process. 

In what is normally an incredibly varied career, I have recently emerged from a month of intensive, back-to-back report writing. When I say report writing, I actually mean story-telling – finding the story in the data and telling that story in the most clear, concise and engaging way. My brain and I have been through a lot, but we have come through it victorious!

I find report writing the most rewarding part of my job. Having identified and overcome the inevitable challenges associated with project management, it’s just you and the data, tête-à-tête. Plus, in my case, 4 different types of post-its, a stack of A4 papers, some A3 papers, coloured pens, mini highlighters and a cup of really strong coffee…Not forgetting the note on my desk for our cleaner saying ‘please don’t clean my desk for the next few days’.


The reason why I find reporting so rewarding is that at this stage of the project you are no longer a “manager”, in that moment, you become a “creator”. Storytelling in the context of research is, for me, about making order out of chaos. I mentioned that in my first interview with Mustard and I stick by it, one year later. You have a stack of transcripts or a massive spreadsheet staring you in the face, and it’s up to you and your team to make sense of it all.

Whenever I think of this process I remember Gandalf the Grey falling down to the deep ends of the earth and battling the demon Balrog, day in and day out, only to come out successful and reborn at the end of the battle as Gandalf the White. That is the perfect analogy for story telling.

You immerse yourself in the data, you look for the meaning, you think you have it only to find that you haven’t, you dig even deeper, and you go through this love-hate relationship several times until you make it to the end, with a beautiful creation to present to your client.

That’s exactly how I spent my last month, going from frustration to euphoria, back and forth, several times a day. Here’s some advice I’m happy to share on the back of these experiences:

1. Always start with the end in mind

Before you start any analysis, go back to the research brief and objectives and remind yourself of the burning questions – the foundation of the “plot”.

Sometimes, when immersed in the data, it can be easy to forget the underlying purpose as you hunt out the “meaning”. With one of the reports I recently wrote, I was really struggling at times – I was so close to the data that I was no longer able to see the ‘wood through the trees’. That’s when Colin, our Managing Director, said ‘remember that one of the objectives of this project is that …’ and that’s when it struck me – I had begun to lose track of the objectives!

Print them on an A4 paper, stick them to your desk and make sure you read them as many times as possible. The research objectives will always keep you anchored and remind you of why you are writing the story.

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2. Get the data into a format that works for you. For me, that means charts. Lots of them.

We all have our own styles and approaches. We are all wired differently. Finding what works best for you is key!

What I find with quant projects is that I first need to display and chart the data, before I even look for the ‘meaning’. A massive spreadsheet doesn’t give me enough. I am not John Forbes Nash Jr. in ‘A beautiful mind’; numbers don’t speak to me immediately. I am a woman of words, I need to put numbers into words and contexts and only then they speak to me.

Although more time consuming, I find this process beneficial and ultimately enlightening. If you play about with and chart the data then themes start emerging and ultimately you get to the meaning. With one of my recent reports, the “key to the case” (I love detective movies, please accept the metaphor!) came at the very end, once everything was charted. Ultimately, the final summary report didn’t contain any of these charts I had laboured over. But you know what? It told an amazing story! Charts are a means to an end, not the end result. The story is the end result!

With qual, on the other hand, once I’ve reminded myself of the research objectives, I first have to read every single transcript, take lots of notes and do a thematic analysis to see what the data is saying (I recommend increasing the caffeine consumption at this stage). Again, time consuming but so worthwhile.

Don’t be a slave to the discussion guide! For a compelling story with flow, it is very rarely about linear reporting. Just like with charts, the discussion guide is a means to an end, not the end result. The story is the end result!


3. Be open and ready to change the story as you go!

There will be moments when you’ll think you’ve “got it”. Minutes later you will realise that, actually, it doesn’t make sense, it’s repetitive, it’s not an insight, it is confusing or contradictory.

When you are telling a story with your data, every point you are making has to be crystal clear, flow in a logical sequence, and be “so what?” tested. Your audience need to leave the debrief with a total understanding of the primary insight and actions, not scratching their heads thinking ‘what does this even mean?’ or worse, ‘what did we invest our money in?’. If it’s not clear or doesn’t flow then it’s not right.

Storytelling is an immersive and profoundly creative process, but more often than not, you are not alone. Discussing the emerging story with the wider project team and involving fresh eyes whenever you feel the need to talk the story out loud can be extremely refreshing and successful in unlocking creative deadlocks.

And finally, in order to get to that final, logical and convincing story, be prepared to go back to the drawing board as many times as you feel necessary. It is part of the process!

4. Be open to inspiration ‘whenever, wherever’ (yes, that was Shakira!)

The creative mind cannot be forced; you can only push it so far! On several occasions I would finish my day completely stuck, not knowing how to continue my story, how to present it in a logical way, and then the next morning, while brushing my teeth or at any other random moment, I would get a ‘eureka’ moment out of the blue (I love it when this happens!).

I know we are advocating for a healthy work-life balance, and I am all for it, but when inspiration comes to you, grab it and do not let it go. It can be the ‘key to your case’!


And finally…

5. Enjoy the end result!

You’ve come this far, now is the time to enjoy it! That moment when you debrief your project and you present your story to the client is the culmination of all your epic battles. The report is your creation, now it’s time to release it into the world and see it grow 🙂

Sit back, soak it up, shout it out loud ‘I nailed it!!!’…

…It will give you all the motivation you need to move on to the next one!