Credit: Jerry Kirkhart

Why your business needs less data

Worshipping metrics risks turning business into a division of accountancy, but storytelling touches the heartstrings says Anthony Tasgal.

by Anthony Tasgal
Last Updated: 18 Dec 2015

There is no tribe or culture that doesn’t use some form of storytelling. Our sense of self is so tied up in stories that we could in a sense be seen as the accumulation of the tales we tell about ourselves and others tell about us – something which is equally true of brands. 

Storytelling works universally as a method of communication because it operates on an emotional and unconscious level. The same cannot be said of Excel. Yet the art of storytelling is rarely at the heart of business communication. 

Management has become sucked into a pernicious system I call the ‘arithmocracy’, where power resides with numbers and those who control them. We are becoming dependent on metrics and slaves to algorithms, with league tables and targets dominating everything from the NHS to our education system, the City and the police force. It’s time we nudge the pendulum back in the direction of art.

Numbers numb us...

Arithmocracy has its origins in Pythagoras’s belief that ‘numbers are gods’ and FW Taylor's scientific management, which led to the engineering monotony of Fordism. It is a system of runaway measurement, prediction and control that seeks certainty above all else and leaves an arid rationalism in its wake - which may explain why we see such high levels of failure in new product development and such increasingly homogenised brands and campaigns.

The fact is that there are often no numerical measures for the meaningful things in life, so we end up counting what can be measured rather than what is really important. There is a risk that this absolves us from the responsibility of thinking.

In scientific circles, the fear of uncertainty is known as ‘physics envy’, aspiring for the absolute predictability and certainty of atoms in the realm of classical physics. But behavioural economics makes it clear that human beings are subject to a variety of processes and biases that are dependent on emotional, unconscious forces and the effect of other people and contexts.

My gripe is not with data, algorithms or analysis themselves, but with the scope of their influence. Take Chris Anderson’s claim that the deluge of data means the ‘end of theory’. I believe - and hope - that he is wrong, but as ‘datification’ intensifies under the gaze of Google, it is tempting to see the answers provided by algorithms as the new Holy Grail.

But data is dumb – it’s theory that makes it alive and insight that makes it actionable. As Graham Daldry, creative director at Specsavers, put it: ‘All information is useful but it’s the interpretation that matters. It can inform creativity but not replace it.’

...But stories stir us

We need to abandon our dependence on the computational theory that sees communications as simply the efficient transmission of information from sender to receiver.

Too often in presentation decks, pre-reads, information packs, pitch documents and external brand communications we fail to distinguish signal from noise, and just parade ‘one damn fact after another’, to paraphrase Toynbee. But behavioural economics again shows that the brain demands coherence (structure) and that memory, emotion and meaning are inseparable.

Human beings are best seen not as a passive audience but as semavores: by analogy with carnivores and herbivores, humans seek out and consume meaning above all.

In the same way, because we are born to tell and listen attentively to stories, we are hardwired to use stories to share social information in a way designed by evolution to maximise meaning, empathy and long-term memorability.

Stories breach the defences of information and circumvent the problem of material getting remaindered in ‘attention spam’. They stir us, because they work with the raw material of human emotion: they move before they prove.

Because the brain likes it easy, as communicators we need to help it by creating a sense of coherent structure that the brain can latch on to. By relying too much on numbers in our business lives instead, we act against rather than in line with the way our brains have evolved. So let’s restore the art to marketing and look for meaning rather than messaging. 

Anthony Tasgal is a marketeer and the author of The Storytelling Book.

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