Data + Storytelling: Emotion Must be in the Equation

1+1 = 2.

This is fact. It’s balanced. It is universal, comforting and logical.

1+1 = 2 tells a story.

But sometimes, 1+1 = 3. This, too, is fact.

1+1 = 3 is powerful, ironic and messy. It’s surprising, uncomfortable and transcendent.

1+1 = 3 tells a great story.

I celebrate the end of “content” and the return to journalistic-inspired narrative storytelling – but I fear we now rely too much on “data” to tell our stories. Emotion must be part of the equation; otherwise 1+1 will always equal two. This is not only bad for storytelling but it’s bad for our culture.

Data can assist and guide. It can validate and reveal. It can make sense out of chaos. Data is absolutely critical to telling both good stories and great ones.

But data can’t write. It can’t speak. And it certainly can’t feel. It may have a heart but it doesn’t have a soul.

Companies such as Narrative Science literally use raw data to write complete stories. But this is closer to stenography than storytelling.

Quill – Narrative Science’s storytelling software – pulls in, analyzes, organizes and ultimately writes complete narratives. According to the Narrative Science Web site:

Quill’s natural language, visualization and rendering engines generate the text, graphics, layouts and styles for each story. During this process, Quill incorporates variability, expressiveness and uniqueness into every element, as if it were written by a skilled writer or analyst.”

But “a skilled writer or analyst” doesn’t write the stories, a machine does. And if machines start writing our stories, using the same universally available data sets, then all of our stories will be the same. They will sound like and be nothing more than content, indistinguishable from each other.

Stories, like people, are incomplete without their emotional sides. Without emotion they are clones, not unique individuals.

This is why Spock from Star Trek was unlike other “logical” Vulcans. Logic or “data” only took him so far – it was his emotion that made him unique. Similarly, Captain Kirk needed Spock’s logic to help contain his emotions and help him make logical decisions.

We need data but we also need journalists to find the places where 1+1 = 3. We need data to help us tell stories that people want to hear, but we also needs brands to be better storytellers by embracing the risk that comes with emotional exposure.

How we tell stories has changed but the nature of story itself is wired into our DNA. The Internet didn’t change us, social media didn’t change us and data won’t change us. Only stories ever have and ever will.

A good story connects us to ourselves. A good story connects us to each other.

But a great story, even in a world overwhelmed with fantastic change, does something even better – it connects us to being human.

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