I’m not quibbling over semantics. There’s a real difference, and conflating the two (or substituting one for the other) is a mistake. Without the context provided by narrative, data can misdirect, contradict or confuse. We need data for clarity, and story for relevance.
This student reinterpretation of a childhood classic shows what happens when we miss the forest for the trees:
Propelled by the steady throb of club music, Little Red Riding Hood devolves into a beautiful procession of meaningless details. A vibrant pulse but no soul. No point of view. No connection. Even our familiarity with the story and its characters can't create a whole greater than the sum of its charts.
Other signs of retreating narrative abound. Consider the “25 Random Things” phenomenon on Facebook. The reader is forced to supply the story. Only then do the factoids transform into something meaningful. Wedded with your personal narrative of Jane or John, the details challenge or deepen your understanding of the person. They add nuance and clarity. But a stranger’s list reads as self-indulgent nonsense. There’s no underlying narrative to tie the pieces together. There's no reason to care.
Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, warns that social media “devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance” is changing the way we process information. She believes we’re collectively losing our interest in storytelling as our attention spans adapt to the sound bite. To the status update. To the tweet.
Let the brand manager beware.
Narrative is the mnemonic device that makes data meaningful and memorable. Without the story, customers can’t connect, and brands can’t resonate. Businesses are rightly looking to data to help them better understand and serve their customers. But knowing every detail of a customer’s life isn’t the same as understanding their story. And spouting data isn’t sharing yours.
It’s true that details make the story. But they are not the story. As revolutions in visualization make data clearer and more useful, so too must our narratives evolve. We must drive brands through story, and support, measure and shape the narrative with data.
What the marketplace has brought together, let no tag cloud put asunder.