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Story and Data, Sitting in a Tree

By Mike Bonifer 3 months ago
Home  /  Customers & Communities  /  Story and Data, Sitting in a Tree

Numbers, on their own, represent quantity, and do not guarantee quality. 100 can be a perfect score on a test, an average IQ, or a bad round of golf. What guarantees quality is the story that provides context for the data. Data and stories are co-constituted. One cannot, does not, exist meaningfully without the other.

The purpose stories serve, have always served, is to put data (i.e. recorded history) into a useful context and help us make smart bets on the future. Stories make sense of information. They help us choose what parts of our history are most relevant to our present-day decisions and are most likely to shape our desired futures.

I wince when I hear leaders or their companies boast that they make ‘data-driven decisions.’ If data is driving your decisions and you don’t weight storytelling equally–if you’re not making [data + story]-driven decisions–you’re rowing with one oar in the water. We know what that means. You’re going to move in circles. When you rely on data alone to make decisions, good, mediocre and bad options for taking action can be presented with equal merit, and leave an audience wanting, and an organization disspirited. Because companies have so much data available to them, the circle may be so big it’ll look like a vector, a direction, for awhile, but sooner or later data will drive you right back to where you began.

A recent NPR story about racial discrimination in online dating points out how OKCupid’s sophisticated data analytics can’t tell two people what they need to know about one another for a romance to blossom, especially across different cultural or racial boundaries. As an interviewee puts it, “The good stuff begins where the data ends.” What’s the good stuff? The seduction. The playfulness. The chemistry. The newness. The possibilities. The romance.

If it’s like this for two individuals trying to figure out if they have a future together, how much more complex it is for a brand trying to connect with its customers, a company wanting to champion diversity, or a community trying to engage its citizens? Immensely more complex. No matter how much data you have on hand, the good stuff always begins where the data ends. The romancing can only happen if you’re willing to honor stories that co-exist with data.

Think of data and story as inextricably entwined, two sides of a coin. Data without storytelling to give it life is like trying to start a fire without a spark. It’s lifeless. Flat. Uninspiring. On the flip side, storytelling that doesn’t respect data is propaganda. It manipulates and ultimately disappoints when the illusion evaporates. Imagine being on an OKCupid dinner date with a person who tells fascinating stories but doesn’t share any information about himself. Check, please! It’s data–where a person went to school, how they grew up, what they do for a living, what music they  like–that provides authentic points of connection, and avenues for sharing. No one tells a credible story without credible data.

Because there’s so much data–so many tools to produce it, visualize it, parse it, and analyze it–companies and communities tend to be over-reliant on it, simply because of its availability and abundance. In order to optimize the value of their data, they need a storytelling process that’s just as lively as their data gathering process. Storytelling that can absorb and contextualize what’s commonly referred to as Big Data. The old garden-variety linear storytelling, designed for channels and not networks, made popular by entertainment, simply isn’t up to the task. Having only one beginning, middle and end to your story is woefully insufficient. Your story needs multiple beginnings, middles and many possible endings. Otherwise it’ll get swamped by all your data.

Other characteristics of storytelling that can be paired effectively with Big Data:

  • It’s highly improvisational, responsive and generative. It accounts for serendipity.
  • It bridges the virtual and the physical worlds.
  • It speaks different functional languages, operates in multiple genres.
  • It accounts for multiple frames of time. Clock time and opportunity time (which doesn’t arrive on a schedule) are weighted equally.
  • It is iterative. It can change from one day to the next without being inconsistent.
  • It uses game structure to explore themes. We call these game structures ‘story engines.’
Data and stories dance together. 
Cue the music, and let the romancing begin! Happy New Year!


  Customers & Communities, Data, Story Analysis
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 Mike Bonifer

  (57 articles)

Mike Bonifer is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer for bigSTORY, a company of strategists & practitioners who are first in the world to utilize quantum storytelling, an emerging organizational science that accounts for how stories are created, live in networks, and influence behaviors. Throughout his professional life, Bonifer has been in the forefront of emerging storytelling practices and technologies. As the publicist on Tron, the author of The Art of Tron, and the writer and producer of Computers are People, Too, he explained computer-generated imagery to the analog world. As a founding producer of The Disney Channel, he pioneered the Walt Disney Company’s entrance into cable television with the legendary documentary series, Disney Family Album. As the producer of the award-winning website for Toy Story, he introduced movie fans around the world to Pixar’s extraordinary storytelling. He co-founded Network LIVE, which lives on as Control Room, producer of some of the biggest online music events in the world, including 2007’s Live Earth concerts for the environment, for which he served as Chief Storyteller. In 2007, he wrote and published GameChangers – Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and, with Dr. Virginia Kuhn of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-founded GameChangers, a learning company that applied improvisation to business communication. His work with GameChangers dramatically improved the performances in units of companies such as Skype, Gap Inc. The Walt Disney Company, United Airlines Media, Gawker Media, NetApp and GE. He has conducted university workshops in Public Health, Entrepreneurship, Engineering, Sociology and Cinema; collaborated with Alan Alda on a workshop for the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC; explained quantum storytelling to physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; coached Ron “The Gangster Gardener” Finley on his famous TED Talk on urban gardening; and returned to his old hometown in Indiana, to tell stories about the legendary smalltown Hoosier baskeball team, his childhood heroes,The Ireland Spuds. He was the featured storyteller at the 2014 San Miguel International Storytelling Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He and his son, Alex, perform a two-person improv act called BonBon, the only father-son comedy improv act in the world (that they know of). In 2015, he will tour Panama, Guatemala and Nicaragua on behalf of the Notre Dame Executive Education program. With bigSTORY, Bonifer and Jeremi Karnell have created a home for one of the most remarkable advances in storytelling of our lifetimes. A way of seeing the world through the lens of the stories we create together. A theory that accounts for the brilliant possibilities that await us when your story and my story become our story.