No Matter How Big Data Gets, it’s Still All About the Story

Nate Silver

Nate Silver

The rise of Big Data gets the attention and the panel discussions at South by Southwest Interactive, even though in the end it’s the ability to tell a story from the data which really makes a difference.

Digital tools mean numbers are available on things which previously couldn’t be quantified and even the largest data set can be crunched to find relationships and trends. SXSW attendees filled seats and standing latecomers lined the walls for the Sunday morning session “Journalism by the #s: data will change the nature of news.” Despite the title, the discussion kept underscoring how much the foundation of journalism hasn’t changed.

“Data doesn’t mean a thing without a narrative, without a story,” said James Grimaldi, an investigate reporter with the Wall Street Journal. Data without a theme is not a story. Although numbers can point you to what the story is, and make the story better, simply creating a dataset isn’t enough. You need to let people know the context and why it matters.

Sometimes, the data itself is the story, although in order for people to pay attention you still have to give the audience a reason to look. And the best use of data is as a starting point for the deeper human story. Grimaldi pointed to a Washington Post investigation looking at gun sale and crime data. The numbers served as a starting point for the journalists – once they found where most of the guns used in D.C. crimes came from, they then spent months talking to people affected by those crimes to tell a deeper human story.

The big change for journalists is knowing how to look at the numbers to find the important points. As Liv Buli, a data journalist for Next Big Sound, said, “if you’re not asking the right questions of the data, you won’t have a story.”

Later in the day, speaker Nate Silver, who created the electoral prediction blog, pointed out some of problems data can present, and it has to do with the stories.

As more and more data has become available, it hasn’t erased disagreements on what’s happening. On the contrary, Silver points out our society has become more polarized. It’s a pattern with historical precedence. Centuries ago, the invention of the printing press – which likewise created an explosion in the amount of available information – was followed by one of the most conflict-prone centuries in European history.

One reason for the disagreements, Silver said, is in how people evaluate data. The more data you have, the more relationships you can find and it’s not always easy to know which ones matter. A gap grows between what we think we know – the relationships in the data we use to confirm our assumptions – and what is actually true.

Part of the problem is in stories. The more data you have, the easier it is to find some point or outlier to say what we want. A story based on an outlier makes sense, but is misleading. “Stories are important,” Silver said, “but you need to make sure they’re representative.”

Wrapping up the day was a panel called “How to make the Internet care,” featuring journalists and activists talking about how to find an audience in the daily clutter of online content. What the session really covered was how to tell a story. If you have an honest, compelling story – whether it’s news or a call for change – people will connect.

The seven tips offered apply to more than just making an audience care. They were key to making people want to connect, regardless of the platform or content:

  • Reveal the unseen and share insights. Play on surprise, and be sincere. People will click or keep reading if they say, “I didn’t know that.”
  • Tell personal stories with emotion. Don’t just give facts. Find a character, and through that character tell how and why the issue is much larger than just this single person.
  • Create a sense of urgency around your topic.
  • Give a clear path to action, and make sure the action you want people to take is directly targeting the people or organizations who can actually make what you want happen.
  • Ask yourself, ‘Would I do this?’ If you’re giving a call to action, make sure it’s something you would do. Inviting your audience into your storytelling, asking them to do something with you, leads to greater connection.
  • Connect people.
  • End the damn story. Once you’ve got someone invested in the story, give them a satisfying conclusion. For example, this emotional, stirring, inspiring video on successful petitions. It’s important to allow people to celebrate success with you, said Amanda Kloer, campaign director for

No matter how many steps you follow, though, don’t forget about the human element. Making people care about what you’re telling them can’t just be boiled down to a system. “Tips are fantastic,” said panelist Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times. “But there is some serendipity involved. There’s an art to making people care.”

Numbers let us know what’s happening. But it’s the stories which have the real power.

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