Data Storytelling: Insights Informs but don’t Inspire Part 1 of 2

Many of us misunderstand the word inspire. We think political leaders with a gift of the gab are inspirational but the word inspire actually means

To fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

So, if you communicate and it doesn't lead to an action, lack of inspiration could be the reason.

The question I want to answer in this blog is

Is it enough to have the insights from data to Inspire a desired action? 

The answer is, No. Being inspired by data alone has been a problem for humanity long before we had access to tables, charts and graphs. While we may aspire to rely more on data in our decision-making, we rarely make decisions based on logical insights. Data Storytelling leads to the desired outcome.

Here is one illustrative example that I came across in one of Brent Dykes articles in Forbes 

In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), a Hungarian doctor, was appointed as an assistant at a Vienna hospital with two maternity clinics for training doctors and midwives. Similar to other hospitals around the world at this time, many admitted mothers were dying of a mysterious illness called puerperal or childbed fever. Semmelweis discovered a disturbing trend where its doctors’ clinic had an average mortality rate of 9.9%, which was significantly higher than that of its midwives’ clinic (3.9%).

Data Storytelling Workshops TrainingsSemmelweis was determined to identify the cause of this difference, but despite many considerations, he was not able to work out what the cause was. An unfortunate event triggered Semmelweis’ aha moment. When a close friend at the hospital was conducting an autopsy, he was accidentally poked by a student’s scalpel and later died from the wound. As Semmelweis performed the difficult post-mortem examination, he noticed a strong similarity in the pathology of his friend’s illness and that of the women who died of childbed fever.

At the Vienna hospital, it was common for the doctors to perform autopsies in the morning and then spend the rest of their day attending patients in the maternity ward—without ever washing their hands. Unlike the doctors, the midwives performed no autopsy work and were not in contact with any corpses. Semmelweis hypothesised that some kind of poisonous particles were being transferred by the doctors from the cadavers to the patients in the maternity clinic. He found a chlorinated lime solution was strong enough to remove the putrid smell of the autopsy tissue from the doctors’ hands and determined it would be ideal for removing these deadly contaminants.

Two months after the death of his friend, he introduced a new handwashing policy for the doctors to use the chlorinated lime solution after any autopsies. When he launched the new policy, the monthly mortality rate was 12.2% in the doctors’ clinic. Semmelweis’ new policy had an immediate impact, and the death rate was lowered to 2.2% (an 82% decrease). After several months of significantly lower mortality rates, he still observed student doctors who were not following the policy. After introducing stricter controls on the negligent doctors, Semmelweis was able to lower the mortality rate even further with two months where no mothers died of childbed fever.
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Semmelweis couldn’t scientifically prove why his handwashing policy worked—that wouldn’t happen until chemist Louis Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease in the mid-1860s. What the doctor had was more than 18 months of statistical data showing his handwashing approach worked and that such practices could save the lives of thousands of expectant mothers. He had the truth - but was it enough?
Rather than lauding Semmelweis’ valuable discovery and adopting his methods throughout the world, he faced sharp criticism, ridicule and resistance from the established medical community. As an example of the prevailing sentiment of many mid-nineteenth-century doctors, American obstetrician Charles Meigs is attributed with saying, “Doctors are gentlemen and a gentleman’s hands are clean.” Due to their social status, physicians were unaccustomed to being reproached—especially by one of their own. Semmelweis’ medical peers couldn’t accept that they were the primary cause of the childbed fever deaths and that women’s lives could be saved simply through better hygiene.
Voltaire once said, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Semmelweis paid dearly for his “heretical” handwashing ideas. In 1849, he was unable to renew his position in the maternity ward and was blocked from obtaining similar positions in Vienna. A frustrated and demoralised Semmelweis moved back to Budapest. He watched his theory be openly attacked in medical lecture halls and medical publications throughout Europe. He wrote increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians denouncing them as irresponsible murderers and ignoramuses. The rejection of his lifesaving insights affected him so greatly that he eventually had some kind of mental breakdown, and he was committed to a mental institution in 1865. Two weeks later he was dead at the age of 47—succumbing to an infected wound inflicted by the asylum’s guards.

As you can see from this story, having a great insight did not inspire the right action.

So, a relevant question to ask is, "What could have Semmelweis done differently and what can we learn from this?"

To find out click here

Why the QR Code? The answer is in the request below we received from a regular blog reader.

"I attended your story telling course some time back. And I've enjoyed keeping up my knowledge with your blog. You may not have realised however, that the Whole of Government is implementing Internet Seperation. Hence I'm not able to access the links to read your articles. Could I suggest including a QR code in your emails so that I can use my mobile to scan it and gain immediate access to the article? It would be most helpful"