Data-driven decision-making through storytelling

12 December 2023 by Mat Oram

We all love a good story. As humans, we connect with narratives on an emotional level, which is why storytelling is such a powerful tool for driving change. This is especially true when it comes to data-driven decision-making.

Raw data is often difficult to interpret and apply. We get lost in the details and fail to see the big picture. But when we shape data into a compelling story, it comes alive. The characters, plot twists, conflicts and resolutions capture attention and inspire action.

Take the example of my son, who recently wanted to buy an Arsenal football shirt. He’d discovered a top would cost £40, so spent 8 weeks saving his pocket money.  In his eagerness, he underestimated the cost. After patiently saving up, he was disappointed to find he didn’t have enough money as the cost was double. Through conversation, his disappointment was eventually resolved when he bought a different shirt (courtesy of Mystery Football Shirts) which was within his budget (the Arsenal shirt became a cherished Christmas gift from his Nan!). So he got two shirts and was very happy.

On the surface, this is a simple story about saving towards a goal. But the elements of characters, plot and resolution provide a framework we can use to tell data stories. Rather than simply stating facts and figures, we can connect with stakeholders on an emotional level to drive the outcome we’re looking for.

Managing procurement spend

For instance, many hospitals struggle with managing the vast breadth of spend with limited resources and capability. The data may show increasing costs or potential coding issues – leading to poor visibility/accuracy. This creates disappointment when teams try to find insights to improve efficiency and find errors. However, by reframing the data into a story, we breathe life into the analysis. Plots thicken, characters have motives and the resolution provides hope.

The first step is to gather perspectives through brainstorming sessions. This prevents assumptions and allows the context to emerge. Next, you need to map your findings to the story framework using post-it notes or online whiteboards. Resist the urge to open Excel at this stage, as it often leads to confusion! The visual narrative process will foster creative thinking.

As the analysis takes shape, craft elements like characters, plot and conflict to build engagement. Ask questions to uncover the ‘why’ behind the data. This could involve supplier relationships influencing product selection or clinicians preferring high-cost devices without justification. Tension arises when discoveries challenge the status quo.

All was not what it seemed

For instance, we collaborated with a trust to evaluate their usage of pacemakers. Our initial focus was on reviewing the cardiology department, where there was a noticeable strong clinical preference for certain products. Our analysis revealed that this trust had a significantly high usage of high-tech pacemakers. While their procurement price for these high-tech pacemakers seemed reasonable in comparison to other trusts, our peer analysis showed they were an outlier in the percentage of high-tech products used when compared with other similar trusts.

Unlike their peers, this trust was opting for high-tech devices, so instead of just procuring the Ford Fiesta equivalent, they were opting for the Rolls Royce (a choice which was primarily influenced by persuasive sales representatives). A simple redirection of 20% of their volume towards lower-tech devices (yielding the same clinical outcomes) was able to potentially save the trust over £200k.

Action plans resolve the tension

While no model is perfect, analytics paired with impactful storytelling moves the needle in the right direction.

For procurement spend, this might involve updated policies, training or supplier performance evaluations to drive sensible decision-making. Share positive outcomes across the organisation so other departments can learn from the success. 

So next time you need to convince stakeholders, try appealing to their innate love of stories instead of leading with facts and figures. Create that emotional connection, and watch your data come alive to drive change.

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