How to create a data-driven narrative for effective storytelling
Great content is intended to move an audience, be it towards a particular action, attitude, behavior, or reflection. But to get your audience to read your content in the first place, you need an attention-grabbing hook.
We don’t mean ‘hook’ in the traditional sense (i.e. a captivating opening statement). Rather, we are referring to a content hook, which is the concept of engaging your audience from start to finish.
Similar to how characters hook readers into books with memorable personality traits and distinguishing features, a content hook makes your content stand out.
But figuring out how to define a content hook is a multilayered process, one that often involves data-driven research. While data is a crucial element in the content creation process, in order to hook audiences, you need great storytelling.
In other words, data and storytelling go hand in hand.
In this article, you’ll learn how and why utilizing the key elements of telling stories can elevate your data-driven approach to content creation.
The limitations of relying solely on data-driven content
‘Data-driven content’ has become its own buzzword. It has come to be seen as the best kind of content, perhaps because it proceeds from a supposedly ‘rational’ position.
In effect, marketers have largely relied on data as the main driver of the content narrative. But while data can help define content needs and give weight to a piece, it doesn’t always inherently speak to the underlying potential to provoke a response.
For this reason, content that relies only on data to tell your story can end up falling flat. Worse, it can overtake the heart of the matter—creating stories that align with your strategy and speak on behalf of your brand.
Equally, our rush to be seen on every emerging platform and move into new storytelling spaces can make it easy to forget the enduring power of a well-told story.
Therefore, returning to the principles of storytelling can reinvigorate your data-driven content in ways that other marketers and creators aren’t offering.
Why fundamental story elements can reinvigorate data-driven methodologies
Every story is comprised of several key elements:
- Form (or structure)
These are the tools at your disposal when it comes to building effective stories.
If we take a creative writing approach to content creation and marketing, the technology we employ to ‘host’ our story is equivalent to the form or structure elements in a story.
Data, on the other hand, is what might shape part of our ‘plot’ and help define the ‘conflict’ we’re aiming to resolve.
While the plot and conflict elements are important tools for formulating ideas and angles, there are still several elements missing from a purely data-driven approach. Namely, the ingredients that provide the connective tissue to elevate a piece from reportage to storytelling.
4 steps to improving your storytelling technique
To help plug the gaps and ensure your data-driven content is leveraging a content hook to surge interest and value, here are four steps for improving your storytelling technique:
1. Pre-write for success
Taking a set of data and finding the story in it is the key that unlocks the whole.
This can be seen as defining the theme and setting for the story you’re about to tell. It’s about more than just organizing your data, as numbers alone won’t cut it.
Conducting research, positioning your content within your overarching brand, and understanding the landscape your data sits within all help to set up your creative process.
- What’s your interpretation of the data at hand?
- What other possible stories could this data tell?
- How does this relate to the story your brand is telling?
Filtering data down to the essential takeaways is key. Once you do so, you should consolidate impressions and thoughts into a comprehensive content brief and outline.
This crucial step will connect your strategy, business goals, audience needs, angles, approach, and narrative in one place.
This way, when you begin writing, you’re aiming at a visible target that’s easy to hit. Failing to clearly tie your data and insights to a comprehensive content strategy could result in a disjointed piece. Importantly, it will be hard to build a compelling hook that speaks to your audience.
To write a detailed brief and outline, take your data and start to define the themes and overarching setting for the story from the insights you glean.
For example, if you are writing an article about lead generation techniques, you’ve likely collected data on how effective the various techniques are by industry, target market, and so on. But this means nothing unless you consider how the data you’ve sourced ties into your target market and audience, industry, business type, business goals, and marketing objectives.
From there, use the data to figure out the content’s captivating purpose. Consider:
- What does your audience already know about this topic?
- How does their previous experience with it impact your data? Does it take these experiences into account?
- Does your brand often take biased stances on topics? Is the data in this case compelling enough to stray from your common approach?
The answers to questions like this will help you to formulate your viewpoint. In essence, plotting your content hook requires careful consideration and planning and is not something that should be rushed or a product of guesswork.
With the content brief and outline in hand (i.e. theme, setting, objectives, angles, audience), you might think you have enough to get started. But to really drill down into the benefits of storytelling, it pays to dig a bit deeper before you start telling the world what your data represents.
2. Remember that character is king
What’s true for the great writers of history remains true for us as content creators and marketers.
In her book ‘Story Genius’, Lisa Cron breaks down the impact of a good story, suggesting stories that stick with us do so because they hook us into a ‘biological lure’:
“What actually causes that great feeling is a surge of neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s a chemical reaction triggered by the intense curiosity that an effective story always instantly generates. Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does - not by telling us what is right, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves. Because just like life, story is emotion-based.”
Cron points to the quality of character to achieve this, suggesting that our opportunity to hook into character motivation is the make or break element of a story that sticks with us.
This is true whether it’s a novel, blog post, or caption that impacts us. We are constantly searching for that ‘hook’; the thing that will clearly convey motivation and character in one fell swoop.
Proceeding from character can even help define the arc or conflict your data is showing you. Famed novelist Stephen King has often said that he does not ‘plot’ his stories. Rather, he lets a character guide him.
For our purposes, this is about understanding:
- Who is really speaking this story you’re telling, and who is it speaking to?
- What is the emotional resonance of this information?
I touched upon this in the previous section, but now is the time to double down on your efforts to build a compelling ‘character’ that will impact your content structure every step of the way.
Of course, you must consider your content guidelines heavily here. If you decide to inject a unique personality into this particular narrative through humor, but your content guidelines preclude the use of humor, you’ll need to consider whether it’s worth taking a humorous approach as a one-off in your wider content offering.
But that’s a risky move because if it doesn’t land well, you could end up losing credibility with your audience. Which brings us back to the second question in the list above: what is the emotional resonance of this information?
To find the answer, you need to define your motivation.
3. Define your motivation
At our most basic level, when we interact with content (in any form), we’re looking for connection. Whether that is to an idea, another person, or a shared desire or struggle, our interest peaks when we can relate to the story that’s being told.
As Cron alluded to, curiosity and the desire to find experiential similarities with others is what gets us invested in what we engage with. Understanding and clarifying your deeper motivation behind the story you’re about to tell is central to building this connection. It’s the ‘why’ of the piece and is an essential part of drilling down and defining character.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean developing ‘personas’. While these can be helpful for getting into the mind of the customer, defining the character allows you to get into the mind of the content’s speaker or narrator.
Allowing your character (narrator) to frame your motivation and thus how you will connect with the target reader (persona) is an essential part of leveraging data in a captivating and targeted manner.
Konstantin Stanislavski, the famed Russian drama teacher and practitioner, developed a methodology about achieving naturalism and realism in performance and storytelling. His concept of the super-objective is still used to this day.
The super-objective asks: what is the essential or core idea that provides the impetus for your story? You don’t need to define this motivation in direct terms (i.e. you don’t have to say “this story is about a power imbalance” or “this story is about wanting to be loved”).
Instead, as it comes from the internal world of the character you’re writing from, the super-objective is about their deeper motivation; the thing that the audience should be challenged or confronted by in your creation.
In other words, this deeper motivation is not your KPI or your content goals. It’s not ‘driving value’ or ‘brand awareness’. If you’re creating a piece of content, there are two layers of motivation to unpack:
- What does the ideal reader come to the piece with, and what is their motivation for reading? This is the part associated with ‘personas’ you’re already familiar with.
- What motivation is being conveyed by the piece itself? What will this mean to your ideal reader? What specific plan, belief, or idea will this challenge or confront? This is the meat of your work and will require more effort to materialize.
It’s a nuanced point, but asking these questions of our content can be powerful. Know what your own super-objective is for the piece you’re creating and use that to form a sense of what your story really offers at its core. This way, you can tap into that biological lure for great stories.
To quote Thom Grunhler, the CEO and Founder of Fjuri:
“Customers not only desire better content, but also experiences that are frictionless, contextual and personalized to them – based on where they are and what they’re doing in the moment.”
Tapping into motivation can help steer the way you create this experience on a storytelling level.
4. Update your mode
New technologies impact storytelling methods but not the elements that resonate with audiences.
Because many marketers are in a race to share consistent content across every possible platform, we often do not interpret data through a storytelling lens. This is a common pitfall that can lead to expensive failures on new platforms.
In order to avoid this, it’s important to further define perspective and form.
Remember that your story should determine your form, not the other way around. This is easier said than done, as brands often feel the need to immediately adopt new technology out of fear of falling behind the curve.
For example, creating a social post as a means to engage your audience might show that you care about connecting with your community on channels they frequently use (i.e. WhatsApp, SMS, or a mobile app like Clubhouse). However, if you get it wrong, you could miss the mark and accidentally turn off your customers, potential or existing.
If the message you’re hoping to convey suits another form better, that should be where your attention turns. Stories expand and contract to fill the form they are in, and this is worth bearing in mind as you unpack the arc at the heart of the piece.
Simply put, if you do decide to press on with a particular form, you may need to change the story. The form, structure, plot, and conflict all impact each other.
Just as you don’t engage with a character in a film the way you do in a book, a brand-driven story will impact the depth and breadth of your content’s arc. So it’s important to consider your mode on multiple levels, as everything within your brand’s offering may be considered content.
Remember to ask yourself:
- What is the story a user discovers at each touchpoint?
- How does your marketing strategy reflect this?
- Do these stories align?
This takes us back to motivation and character. Once you’ve converted your story into a LinkedIn post, or a TikTok video, or a Clubhouse conversation, do motivation and character remain intact?
Consider this question your true north. If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, reevaluate, restructure, and reshape your story.
Utilizing the basics of great storytelling offers us as content creators and marketers an opportunity to tap into the brain science that keeps people engaged and interested.
Data-driven content feels like a shortcut or a way to get around the tricky, slippery quality of ‘connection’ and ‘emotional resonance’. But those qualities still make for the stories we hold with us long after we click away.
There’s no shortcut to emotional depth, but with these elements in play, we can dig into the deeper resonances that elevate a story—one that starts with the numbers and ends in the hearts and minds of engaged fans.