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Three concrete and memorable story examples from the book "Made to Stick"
Stories that engage. Stories that inspire. Stories that stick.
Stories, stories, stories.
They have an impact that a mere set of facts or data doesn’t. They’re the next best thing to experiencing the event for ourselves. But some stories stick with us for longer than others, which is why I’m always on the lookout for successful examples. The book Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath is chock-full of them. I’ve just finished reading it for the second time and wanted to share my three favourite examples with you in this week’s newsletter. May they inspire your future data stories!
In 1992, Art Silverman had a tricky message to convey to the American public. The nutrition research group that he worked for had just found out that seemingly harmless popcorn in movie theatres was actually full of fat.
Nutritionists recommend that we eat no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. A medium-sized bag of popcorn had 37 grams—two days’ worth. The culprit was coconut oil, which theatres used to pop their popcorn. It was brimming with saturated fat.
So how could he have communicated the message of 37 grams of saturated fat? Silverman could have created a visual comparison—perhaps a bar graph, with one of the bars stretching twice as high as the other. But that was too dry and academic.
Instead, he called a press conference and announced the following: “A medium-sized popcorn at a typical movie theatre contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner—combined!”
The story immediately went viral. Movie-goers started avoiding popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. Soon after, most of the nation’s biggest theatre chains announced that they would stop using coconut oil.
In his book The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey describes a poll of 23,000 employees from a number of companies and industries. Here’s the initial presentation of its results:
Only 37% of the surveyed have a clear understanding of what their organisation is trying to achieve and why;
Only 1 in 5 are enthusiastic about their team’s and organisation’s goals;
Only 1 in 5 say they have a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organisation’s goals;
Only 15% feel that their organisation fully enables them to execute key goals;
Only 20% fully trust the organisation they work for.
Then, Covey rephrases these findings using a metaphor:
“Imagine that a soccer team had these same scores. In that scenario, only 4 out of 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 out of the 11 would care. Only 2 out of the 11 would know what position they play and what exactly they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.”
“When are we ever going to need this in real life?”, is a question Dean Sherman, a high school algebra teacher, gets from his students all the time. At first, Sherman was bothered by the question and would look for justifications. But now he says: “Never. You’ll never use this.”
He then goes on to remind his students that people don’t lift weights so that they’re prepared should one day someone knock them over in the street and place a barbell across their chest. You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises to improve your ability to think logically so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden, or parent.
Math is mental weight training. For most people, it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.
What do all these stories have in common? They’re concrete and memorable. The analogies of a football team, fatty steak, or weight-lifting are much more powerful than a list of facts. They help you grasp the information without feeling overwhelmed (or bored!) and remember it days or even years later.
I used the popcorn story in a talk last Monday, and it was the one thing all the participants recalled. And that’s great. Even though the story wasn’t my key point, I’m glad people will think about it the next time they present data. Perhaps it can inspire them to be more creative. Perhaps it can inspire you, too!
Thanks for reading The Plot. 📡
See you next week,
Did you know that I run a data storytelling studio called Parabole? 📡 We help mission-driven organisations communicate their impact through engaging data stories. If that’s you, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set up a chat!