This might be sacrilege for a freelance writer, but I’m starting to lose faith in words now. It’s difficult to trust them these days. They’re duplicitious little sound bites, these words. I’m starting to suspect data can tell stories quicker and more accurately.
Fact: 100,000 words have ambivalent meaning. The amount of duplicitous numbers? Nil.
Lets explore why data is a better story telling mechanism.
Words, in a story telling context, have come to be like a clunky, inefficient hypervisor operating system, whereas data is like bare metal computing. Raw and powerful, but a little dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. One of the meanings of the phrase ‘too much information’ is quite apt here.
Words have lost their power through misuse. For example, there are millions of people in the technology industry who claim to be IT agnostic. That means, literally, that they don’t think they believe in the existence of IT. Eh? Surely they’re in the wrong job!
The same people often talk about methodologies when they actually mean methods. Methodologies, from its latin origins, means the study of methods. Increasingly, people say one thing and mean something completely different!
Fact: words are growing in ambivalence by 80%, year on year, as the number of marketing gurus grows. Increasingly often, the real meaning of a phrase is the complete opposite of the image the user is trying to convey.
Take, for example, Humbling. If there’s one word I really don’t trust any more, it’s that one. When any celebrity meets, say, someone who is genuinely heroic, they often describe the subsequent meeting as ‘humbling’. For example, when pop group The Spice Girls met the president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, they described the experience as ‘humbling’.
If the whole exercise really was humbling, they never would have arranged a press conference and massive photo opportunity. That would have been terrible for their carefully nurtured public image. When I say ‘they’, I am referring to Posh, Ginger, Scarey, Sporty and Baby Spice, rather than Mr Mandela. In all his many years as a freedom fighter, anti-apartheid revolutionary, prisoner of conscience and, latterly, politician and philanthropist, Mr Mandela never hired a single publicist, PR or image consultant. He gave his life to his people and didn’t demand control over anything – certainly not his image right. Now that’s humble.
Last time I checked Spice Girls Limited, the holding company for Brand Beckham and co, it had ten directors, five shareholders and total current assets of £114,705.00. Now those numbers do tell a story.
Still, let’s not be beastly to the Spice Girls, I used that story to exemplify that data is often more revealing than the narrative that self-publicists like to weave.
If the data is on your side, it’s a massively powerful tool for informing your audience. Data doesn’t waste any time beating around the bush, it gets straight down to it and lets people know the essential details.
In fact, you don’t even have to tell the story. You present the facts and people will fill in the blanks for themselves, which gives them some active participation in the story and creates a far more satisfying experience. This is well understood in the entertainment industry, where you have to be a good story teller to survive. As the Screenwriters’ maxim has it, show, don’t tell.
Data, when presented properly, in its rawest form, can show, rather than tell.
Here’s some facts, for example, that could summarise the argument I’ve made above.
0: The number of untrustworthy numbers
100,000: The estimated numbers of ambivalent words
0: Interesting articles that contain the word “compelling content”
100% The empowerment of a reader who constructs their own story from the facts
75% The danger level that a person will over use facts
That final point is crucial. Just as the potency of words has been undermined by misuse, facts can be abused too. If you give too many of them, and there is no clear pattern, the story becomes obscured.
You have to be sparing with data. Provide the minimum you possibly need to build the spine of the story and the readers imagination will flesh out the rest. That way they will engage their brain and take ownership of the story. They’ll be empowered. But not in a Spice Girls – Nelson Mandel way.