Hitesh Nayak is the lead data scientist at Bengaluru-based Prescience, a six-year-old data science startup. Before enrolling in The Ken’s Narrative Thinking program, he had one hope—to be able to communicate more with clients, and help his firm get business. Back then, he felt he was too much of a ‘numbers guy’, not equipped with the skill needed to talk business with current or potential clients. Six months after completing the Narrative Thinking program, though, like the true data scientist he is, he shared with us some data to show how it’s worked for him. 

He’s increased the footprint of one of his client accounts by 20%, customer reach by 8%, and the queries he used to receive from managers and clients asking him to explain what a certain data point meant have halved. This, he tells us, is because of the lessons he’s learned on understanding audiences. Now, he can break down a problem and communicate it in a non-technical way, one that’s easy for a business person to understand. 

The workshop taught him to shift his perspective from data-first to audience-first—the foundational mental model on which The Ken’s learning program is built on. And as the data he shared shows, he’s started applying the science of storytelling to his work, and the data insights he provides are now clearer, more meaningful, and actionable for his clients.

If Hitesh was amazed by the power of a data story told well, the team from think tank Sight and Life were surprised that the voluminous data they painstakingly collected on nutrition in food products could appear appealing. 

The Ken launched Narrative Workshops in October, 2021. Since then, the majority of our applicants have expressed a specific interest in learning Data Storytelling. A skill that, Forbes wrote recently, is the most important in modern workplaces.

‘Forrester’s research predicts that 70% of employees are expected to work heavily with data by 2025—up from just 40% in 2018. It’s clear that organizations that build data literacy into their workplace culture will gain a competitive edge in our increasingly complex global economy…Forrester reported that organizations that invest in data literacy and upskilling experience benefits like higher productivity, increased innovation, and better customer and employee experiences.’

However, the majority of employees still aren’t trained in the data skills their employers expect. Which is why we have developed our data storytelling program for teams that want to learn to communicate data to those who don’t speak the language of data. 

The program teaches how to convert facts, figures, and dashboards into a story with a climax. In a way that can be communicated in an email or presentation, and spur the audience to take action. The program begins with mental models, and goes on to cover concepts, case studies, interactive exercises, and application techniques. 

In short, it is specifically designed to meet a widespread need within organisations.

Data can be tortured to say anything

This need is, perhaps, more pronounced when you are a mammoth 113-year-old conglomerate that has an abundance of data. Like, say, ITC Ltd. 

The problem statement that ITC stated that training teams in reading the data was essential. In the case of abundance of data, it can be cut, sliced, and dissected in whatever way. Pure data can be tortured to say anything, and the ability to build strong narratives around market data was vital. The teams collect, analyse and present it to multiple external and internal stakeholders so storytelling is critical as it creates meaning. Some times the meaning of it gets lost and they need to learn how to build a coherent narrative.

Anirban Majumder, co-founder of Prescience, had a similar expectation. He’d observed that the data scientists and data engineers didn’t explain the context behind the data, they were just analysing it and presenting the results to clients, which did not work on its own. Majumder wanted them to learn to think from the perspective of the client. And how to convert excel sheets and dashboards into clear emails, update reports, and presentations. Over pre-program surveys, we also found out why the Prescience team felt they needed to learn storytelling:

“Clients don’t understand how the backend works. I need to know when to get technical and when to use business insights to build trust and communicate the effectiveness of a model clearly. Our predictions have to align with what they understand and need.”

“I need better articulation to show that this is what we have done and this was our thought process in their context because they are business people. Sometimes when I talk to clients, they don’t understand the problem, and shifting from technical to business is difficult for me.”

“I want to learn how to create a powerful story backed by insights derived from data. Is there a framework/structure that I can follow? How to tell the same story effectively for different audiences (CXOs vs Directors vs Internal audience) under different circumstances (Sales pitch vs Business Review vs regular business update)?”

The Sight and Life team, for its part, wanted to learn how to better use data visualisations and storytelling to reach diverse audiences (such as social enterprises, pharmaceutical companies, funders, and governments) to highlight the importance of malnutrition and raise funds for projects aimed at tackling it. 

All three teams agreed that without a powerful narrative, the data in isolation was useless. It needed an accompanying narrative to drive better decisions and business outcomes. In the pre-program surveys, more than 70% of these participants said that they thought data storytelling was extremely important and that their biggest challenge was presenting the data in an engaging, persuasive, and relatable manner.

It takes a great data story to get outcomes

Fast-forward to a few months after the program and we have most of them using the skills they learned every day.

In fact, Nayak’s colleague, Mathangi A, senior business analyst at Prescience, got together with a few other participants to form a feedback club for presentations and reports. Its sole purpose was to continue to improve the storytelling skills after the program ended.

“During the sessions, the examples and case studies enabled us to grasp the concepts better. It’s one thing when you read the concepts, and another when you understand and learn how to apply them. Moreover, the continued support in terms of private hours for participants post the workshop was hugely beneficial,” she said. Now, Mathangi can step into the shoes of their audience to help them see the data from her perspective. “After applying the data storytelling frameworks we learnt, we now know how to structure it and explain in a way that captivates the audience’s attention.”

The process of giving and receiving feedback internally also continued to improve the team’s performance even after the program ended. 

A Product Manager at Sight and Life, who uses data storytelling to help raise funds, believes the skill is essential even for not-for-profits because it helps him visualise the impact and return on investments for donors. The narrative program, he says, has taught him not to take his audience’s understanding and familiarity with data for granted. He also focuses more on structure while preparing reports and presentations now. “Earlier, I tended to be all over the place with my emails and written communication. But now, I’m more structured and less verbose, and thus able to get my point across effectively.”

To apply for a place in The Ken’s Narrative Workshops for the next quarter, Sign Up here.

Disclaimer: The Ken’s Learning team is not involved in editorial decisions and operates independently of its Editorial team