Listening to data and the stories within data has become, now more than ever, a crucial ability. We call this story listening.
The world is full of noise. It’s becoming harder and harder to comprehend rapidly increasing oceans of information and data, much less determine what is valuable and what is “fake.”
I first thought about story listening at the Seattle Interactive marketing convention a few years ago. After two days of really smart people summarizing their thoughts into easily-retained quips and isms (this is marketing, after all), I noticed a glaring theme: Everyone was talking about storytelling.
Storytelling is an incredibly effective way to connect with people, and it deserves attention, but where are all of these stories supposed to come from? How are good stories born?
Story listening comprises the critical research, pattern recognition, and observation work before you start telling your stories.
Stories always come from somewhere—from bias and opinion and observation and argument and inspiration—and we need to acknowledge this before we begin storytelling.
Data exists without us. We can shape data and translate it. We can add meaning to detail. We can tell a story. But to do that well, we need to listen to the details. That starts by story listening.
1. Ask questions about the details
Don’t just ask, though. Truly listen to the answer, even if it’s not what you were looking for. Try to hear what it could mean. If you get good at asking questions, you’ll hear responses that fuel subsequent questions. Behind those next questions lives the real story.
2. Check your assumptions
Unpack your starting premise.
If the story you’re formulating seems to include assumptions, double-check them. Poke holes in your initial bias. Make sure that your preconceived notions aren’t distracting you from the truer story, the one you should be listening to.
How? Repeat Step 1.
3. Find the weaknesses in your ideas
Don’t wait for your audience to find an alternative story that makes more sense than yours. Eventually, they will.
If something about your story sparks an idea, actively hunt for reasonable, substantive counterarguments to your idea. You’ll get to the truth of your story much quicker by being a skeptic of your own ideas.
Repeat Step 1 and Step 2.
The world is full of signal too
And if you listen better, you’ll start to cut through the noise to hear the stories.
We’ll explore this idea more for our Design Week Portland event on April 27. Join us as we explore making data central to your stories, story listening and storytelling. We’ll share practical data-visualization techniques that analysts, designers, strategists and writers alike can use immediately. Maybe we’ll even make you a better listener.