A Good Story Beats Data Alone Any Day

A few years ago, I took a storytelling workshop meant to help participants craft and share a personal story in order to make deep connections with listeners. We got a basic prompt (“tell a story about something important that has happened in your life") had about 10 minutes to think through the entirety of our lives up until that point, pinpoint one important story to share, craft some of the structure and themes of our story, and then get ourselves psyched up to share our most personal moments with a group of strangers.

Have you ever been asked to be vulnerable and share a story about yourself? How about a story that showcases the most important aspects of your work?

Our stories about ourselves and our work are based in both quantitative and qualitative information, and both can be surprisingly challenging to shape into a clear and impactful message. The workshop that I attended was helpful in preparing me emotionally to talk about myself and my work, but I was still needing more storytelling training in other areas, like thinking about the perspective of my audience, clearly articulating the message I wanted people to walk away with from hearing my story, choosing the right details to articulate the critical information, and creating visual representations of my story to support and enhance its impact.

Believe it or not, the way I actually developed these storytelling skills was through learning to use Excel. But because Excel starts off filled with bland gridlines, unending rows and columns, and a black-on-white display that can make anyone quickly lose interest, how is it possible to keep your audience engaged, captivated, and understanding the message you want them to get? It is surprisingly similar to what you might do if you were writing a short story, with just a touch of technical skill.

Here are the top three ways to become a master storyteller in Excel and - surprise, surprise - only one of them HAS to happen in Excel!:

  1. Write out your message in English first.

  2. This might seem like an obvious tip, but this one can really trip people up when they are getting started using data and Excel. There are so many other things you can start with - getting your numbers lined up, creating graphs and fun visuals, throwing in colors, making all different kinds of PivotTables of information. But when you start with these things it is far too easy to get caught up in the details and the technical stuff, and to move off-message. Before doing any of that, open a new tab in Excel, or a blank Google doc, or grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing out what message you want your audience to take with them from your spreadsheet and/or presentation. When you do start going back to your data and functions, you can always check back in with what you wrote down for your message to make sure you are sticking to it with anything that you present.

  3. Design for your audience.

  4. Some people like to read long, flowing descriptions of scenes, some want to know every little detail their characters are thinking and saying, and some want short sentences that are direct to the point and get them the information they need. The same is true for looking at data and information in Excel. As you are putting together your message and story in Excel, there are many different ways you can present it. The best way to get the message to your audience is to do it the way that they will best receive it. If your audience only wants the high-level information and would get bogged down in details, you’ll want a simple and clear message clearly displayed, without a lot of other words and numbers that could get distracting. On the other hand, if your audience tends to asks tons of questions and will want every last detail, make sure those details are clearly organized so that you can pre-empt those questions where possible. There are a ton of other configurations this could take, depending on who is looking at your presentation.

  5. Learn to use dynamically shifting text.

  6. Excel formulas can do a lot more than math - they can help you keep your story and message up-to-date as your data and information gets updated as well. By just using an ampersand (&) and some quotation marks, you can make sure your message always is in line with your data. Let’s say you want to always present on the number of volunteers and the hours they put in for your organization each month. The sentence you always want at the top of your sheet is: This month ([MONTH]), we engaged [NUMBER VOLUNTEERS] for a total of [TOTAL HOURS] hours. But of course, the month, number of volunteers, and volunteer hours change each month. So you can have a formula of both text and numbers that looks like this:

Want to up your game even more? Need more of these tips and tricks? Let’s get some time on the calendar to chat about your Excel needs! Contact me about individual trainings, team trainings, custom Excel/Google Sheets projects, or anything else with Excel/Google Sheets.