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Storytelling and Data: Using Two Sides of the Brain Is Better Than One

A still from Unilever's "Help a Child Reach 5" video | Image credit: Unilever

In nine earlier parts of this series, we discussed 19 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field. (Find the first 7 articles here and the last two here.)

It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just because we do not have a good story.
— Opening line of Thomas Berry’s 1978 ecological monograph, The New Story


Take a look at Stephan Lewandowsky’s excellent Guardian piece that compares war reporting’s history with mismanaged data to current failures in climate change media reporting. During the Iraq war lead-up, the evidence was weak, but the overall story — the perception of grave imminent risk — was seen by the past administration as sufficient to justify going to war. Climate change reporting has the opposite problem. There is a mountain of compelling evidence to justify action, yet momentum still lags. In both, there is a story, and there is data. But they aren’t of equal quality, or working together

This got us thinking about how this applies to our field’s storytelling trend. There’s similar dissonance when story and data aren’t balanced and joined to inspire more sustainable business actions.

Some companies are now using storytelling, or narratives, in novel and admirable ways to inspire their employees and engage their stakeholders. One in particular, the powerful, viral "Scarecrow" video from Chipotle, connects without numbers or words. The Guardian’s Jo Confino has an idea about why storytelling became a huge 2013 trend in the sustainable business world. He said that the sustainability movement will fail to achieve a prosperous future for society and the planet unless we start giving people a compelling future vision. What the sustainable business world needs are better stories that inform and inspire.

We also believe that business storytelling emerged as a solution to the limited conversations we can have when we rely too much on data, including why we’re pursuing sustainability in the first place. However, together, storytelling and data can help address the dissatisfaction with our current level of progress and the approaches taken, and be more consistent with the urgent need for greater actions on sustainability issues.

Storytelling can help communicate what’s really behind the numbers and what the company, perhaps influenced by stakeholder perspectives, thinks they mean (in line with our very contrarian belief that numbers do not “speak for themselves”). Stories help us answer the really hard, essential “why” questions that go unseen when numbers are king. Numbers and facts are still important, of course, as together with story they add specificity to a bigger purpose.

For example, on its own, a terrifyingly high cholesterol number is a symbol of poor health. The story, however, is how this number inspires you to be healthy on your daughter’s wedding day.

When you have both sides of the brain communicating — the rational, hard right side of facts and numbers, and the aspirational, creative left side of values and feelings, you get a richer whole that’s greater than story or numbers alone.

Pitfall 20: Don’t miss the opportunities to add stories to your data, or data to your stories for biggest impacts

We see four dimensions to this partnership:

  1. Data without stories is limited in providing ways for people to connect personally or meaningfully to the information.
  2. But stories without data lack specificity, may stretch credibility, and can veer too far to the purely emotional.
  3. Together, data and stories can help offset weaknesses in the other.
  4. And, finally, together, data and stories make a powerful combination.

As an example of the first, if you are inside the data echo-chamber it can be hard to see just how one-sided a numbers focus alone can get. An example is how this article, "How to Use Well-Managed Data to Realise Your Sustainability Goals" ends: So, data makes the world go round.” We would say, “Hold on! No it doesn’t” (although, in the author’s defense, it does often seem that way these days). There are far better candidates for what makes the world go round, including the fantastic story of the unseen human microbiome that science is just uncovering.

A core property sustainability offers is the permission to ask: “Have we overlooked anything that might be important?” Too much focus on any one thing, even something as important as data, exacerbates a too-narrow field of view, and can miss … well, the real story.  

On the other hand, stories that aren’t grounded with accurate data can potentially overwhelm and manipulate the situation by veering too far to the heart and gut side, or be seen as squishy and soft.

So, the lesson is we need both.

On our last point, this New York Times dotEarth blog post from November 2013 deserves close examination for showing the potential synergy when story and data are balanced.

We recognize that what is meant by “stories” can mean different things. So here’s one definition of what effective sustainable business stories look like: At their heart, good stories cast people (businesspersons, customers and stakeholders) as the heroes who take action and solve problems. They are rooted in broadly accepted values and, we would add, supported by meaningful facts that empower people to take action.

Unilever’s Help a Child Reach 5 hand-washing campaign video is a standout example of connecting the heart and mind with story and data. It brings a dignified sense of hope to the global childhood mortality crisis, told through one father’s joy. The numbers on their own are disheartening: Two million children under five die every year from wholly preventable sanitation-related illnesses. But elevated by the story of one child’s survival, a better future becomes imaginable. This emotional campaign is supported and bolstered, in turn, by the numbers-replete Health and Hygiene goals in Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.

In the world of sustainability storytelling, three at the leading edge of intertwining stories and data in meaningful and memorable ways are Free Range Studios CEO Jonah Sachs, strategist Simran Sethi and Forum for the Future founder Jonathan Porritt (See his new first-person, story-based book of the view looking back from 2050: The World We Made).

Two resources from the emerging world of visualization that marries storytelling and data are: An accessible article called "Five Steps to Storytelling with Data" and a more academic treatment called "Storytelling: The Next Step for Visualization."


Stories aligned with data have a unique ability to reach people more deeply, motivate and help them better understand facts, and therefore make better-informed decisions about the future in ways that make sense to them as managers, employees, parents, neighbors and community members.

There’s a great overall story waiting to be written, told and retold, perhaps rising to the level of legend, of how humanity defied expectations to ensure there are enough resources for everyone, including for future generations, using scientific facts and staying within planetary limits. It’s up to sustainable business leaders to cast themselves in their roles for this new, original and ongoing story. That includes the job of number generator and user. And it also embraces acting in their larger identity as whole people, who can recall why as children they always wanted to “hear a story.”

Matt Polsky is a sustainability change agent and a Senior Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise. He tries to leverage change by encouraging select individuals and organizations to aim higher; and by catalyzing new types of sustainability… [Read more about Matt Polsky]

Claire used to do corporate communications for the world's largest insurance company. Then she saw wild orcas off the coast of British Columbia and quit her job to go sea kayaking. Ever since, she's been freelance writing for companies such…
[Read more about Claire Sommer]

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