Data Storytelling : Graph can enlighten but only story can get an action

During the COVID-19 outbreak, I would see graphs and charts of increasing cases being shared all the time which would leave me puzzled because I would also see plenty of people violating physical distancing measures and not taking the actions they should have taken after looking at scary graphs showing the cases going up. I wondered why we were not taking action.

Here is an example of a graph shared in Feb 2020

Data Storytelling
Data Storytelling

None of this information was making people do what was required. Why?

Here is an incident that explained it all.

In March 2020, after my routine long run for the weekend, I was looking forward to the usual family breakfast tradition. However, that day, I decided to get a takeaway breakfast because COVID-19 seemed to show signs of continued spread. I was being careful.

As I was leaving the lobby of our apartment building for the car park, I saw an ambulance pull up. My heart skipped a beat. Is someone sick? Is this person infected?I then saw healthcare workers fully covered with masks, goggles, and bunny suits. My palms started sweating as I watched them take a wheelchair out of the ambulance.

I was convinced that there must have been a case of COVID-19 at our apartment block. I panicked and rushed back home via the stairs to tell my daughter that she should not leave the house and definitely not use the lifts.

In the days to follow, I would lose my nerve over small things like my daughter touching the staircase railing at our apartment block. The involuntary reaction of clearing my throat every now and then became noticeable and I would question, “Is today the day I will get COVID-19?”

Although I had known about COVID-19 before, my reactions were pronounced after witnessing the scene i the lobby of the apartment building. Was it the proximity of the infection that made me panic or was it something else?

Every time I felt anxious, I noticed myself v the lobby and the fully covered healthcare workers. Every time I hear sirens wailing, the visual of the lobby pops up in my head. It was the story that freaked me and made me take extra precautions for the safety of my family and myself during such times.

Clearly, stories are a powerful tool — they can help us better understand the severity of the situation. But sadly, our analytical brain tends to rely solely on daily briefings filled with statistical information presented in pie charts and bar graphs.

Historically, we have never relied solely on statistics to communicate calamity. There is an inverse relationship between high numbers and comprehension. It is much harder to picture the tragedy we now face with COVID-19 with statistical information. However, telling a story of a single person in pain or using a familiar image of the human condition can bring about a desired behaviour change. This form of visualisation is what psychologists term “identifiable victim effect,” where the effect of one individual, an identifiable victim, who is made known in full detail can evoke much deeper feelings, emotions and sympathy than a large group of anonymous individuals.

Stories help humanise clinical statistics and make the numbers comprehensible not just visualised data.

My on the importance of storytelling was further confirmed when a couple of weeks I read an excellent article by Scott Gollaway titled Storytelling 

Here is the extract on Narrative vs. Numbers from his article

Narrative vs. Numbers

Data may be more truthful, but in the battle between narrative and numbers, most of the time humanity picks narrative. Among CEOs, 7 in 10 sometimes ignore data insights in favor of “trusting their gut.” More potent than statistics in cancer awareness campaigns are personal narratives — advertisers know this and have unleashed the power of stories to increase cancer screening rates.

Social change follows the narrative. The meatpacking industry famously registered structural upheaval not in response to data on worker conditions, but Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Today, attitudes towards gay and trans people are softening in many communities thanks to personal stories in television and other media — and the right is weaponizing this, creatinghysteria about a supposed plague of boys playing girls sports and using their bathrooms to harden those attitudes and whip up the base. Social media algorithms, at their core, connect bursts of media (scenes) into a story. But they’ve learned that the stories we can’t look away from are often those that validate our anxiety and depression, that confirm our suspicion that other people are awful.

A graph, data, numbers can lighten but only a story can get an action

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