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Making Stories Stick Using Data

By Danny Goodman / November 15, 2016

 We love stories.

Stories can be entertaining, engaging, and inspiring. They move people to think differently and, ultimately, to change their behavior -- to act.

We tend to think of stories as dramatic and captivating retellings of events that happened to fictional or real people. But stories don’t have to be exciting. They don’t necessarily have to entertain, either.

In our last post, we discussed how data analysis can help explain a phenomenon in the classroom. At school, we can use the data gathered from EdTech to create a shared understanding between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, and as a tool to drive change when it comes to preparation, planning, and instruction. But reading off raw learning data at face-value is not enough. The data should support an idea, and these ideas communicated together should be told as a story.


How can we use data to tell better stories in education?

A few years ago, Dan and Chip Heath wanted to understand what makes stories “stick.” Essentially, they sought to answer the question how can we construct ideas in an effective and compelling way? The findings are captured in their book Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (See: http://heathbrothers.com/made-to-stick-introduction/).

Dan and Chip offer a set of six key qualities of an idea that is made to stick:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotional
  • Stories

While all of these elements, when employed together, tell more impactful stories, achieving simplicity in your ideas and stories stands out as an opportunity for teacher and administrators seeking to use learning data to add punch to their stories.

Simplicity: Stripping an idea down to its core without turning the idea into a soundbite.

The data that you collect and analyze in your schools is not an answer in and of itself. Learning data is a compass, setting the table for us to ask the right questions of our performance and behavior data.

After recognizing patterns in the learning data, and after giving thought to key takeaways and implications, it is not enough to slap a graph on a powerpoint slide and call it a day. Your ideas need to be packaged in a simple way.

Can the idea be drawn as a picture? (Notice: Different from redrawing the data/graph)

Are there any analogies that might help anchor your audience?

As the Heath brothers suggest, the key to communicating ideas in a simple way is to:

1) find the core of your takeaway -- the single most important thing

2) anchor the finding in knowledge your audience already possesses .

Most likely, the core of your idea isn’t a single data point. It is the signal, the pattern in the data that you recognize, communicated in plain English, with performance data as a support (rather than as the leading component of the message delivery).

Students of journalism offer a useful guide here-- the inverted pyramid. In communicating your idea, lead with the most “newsworthy” information. What is the headline of your idea? Then, follow with the details, prioritized by importance relative to the headline/key idea.

I tend to think of proverbs as great templates as well-- “practice makes perfect,” “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” “the early bird gets the worm.” Proverbs are the essence of your goal here. They capture a distinct and impactful idea without crossing the line into sound bite territory.

For your idea to land and stick with your audience, it’s essential to ground your idea in knowledge that your audience already possesses. Per the Heath’s, “By anchoring, you use the knowledge they already have as a platform for new learning” (Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made To Stick, 267).

This is where the learning data and systems that deliver data can come into play.

  • If data is the shared language with your audience, use that information to create a shared table for the conversation.
  • If the audience is familiar with the systems used to collect data, reiterating that these systems were used can lend credibility to your point.

Ultimately, and once you’ve introduced your headline, your goal is to create a foundation of understanding with your audience from which you can lead into the insights and implications you seek to communicate.

Note: Analogies and anecdotes can also be used to help frame the conversation. Starting your conversation from a place of mutual understanding is critical. After introducing your headline, lead with the familiar and transition to the new territory you’ve discovered.

Tell a Better Data Story

Topics: EdTech, Data, Metrics, Analysis, Data Collection, Data Analysis, Future Proofing, School Data

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