How to Build Trust in Data Using Storytelling

Why do people flatly reject clear evidence or fail to seek out new information when trying to unravel a problem?  Whether it’s housing bubbles or plunging sales figures portending rough times ahead for a company, smart people can often be rather ignorant of current reality.

Some social scientists believe it is a matter of innate biases that we humans have that prevent us from processing new information rationally and dispassionately. Confirmation bias —which causes people to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs and ignore any contrary data or opinions —is one of the most commonly occurring examples. Similarly, motivated reasoning by scientists and academics combined with “careerism” and the growing pressure to publish more compelling and sensationalized findings that lack the proper academic rigor, offer more evidence of the pervasiveness of bias.

There is also lack of trust. Business leaders, who sing the praises of data and analytics are still, according to research by KPMG and Forrester, skeptical of their data with only one third indicating they trust the analytics coming from their business operations.

Tell a Story

You have to wonder why something deemed so critical — using data and analytics to gain a better understanding of the world around us — is too often ignored or just outright rejected? Unconscious bias plays a part, but trust is the secret sauce, the essential ingredient for more rational, data-driven decisions. There must be trust in the integrity of the data (is it accurate and complete) as well as the source of the data (no manipulation, hidden agendas). So, how do you achieve trust-building in data and analytics — factoring in potential bias inherent in how people process information?  

There is one communication technique used for centuries that may hold the key to knocking down the bias and trust barriers: storytelling.  Using a narrative device rather than just facts and figures has proven to be effective at persuading, influencing (yes, manipulating), and imparting knowledge for the simple reason that people are better able to retain information delivered in this manner. Research has shown that more areas of our brain are activated by storytelling, which leads to higher levels of engagement and attention. Research in behavioral science has also revealed that cognitive bias is the result of people using mental shortcuts or simplified rules of thumb when faced with complex issues.

To address the trust element, you must bring the audience (your stakeholders) into the story such that they start to relate to and empathize with the “characters” and the situation. In addition, using data visualization to support your story can have a huge impact, as humans process visual images 60 times faster than words.

Lessons From ‘The Big Short’

You can find stories in film and literature that can help you understand complex issues or topics as well as human behaviors and situations. There is perhaps no better recent example than the film The Big Short, which weaved a compelling tale of the financial crisis driven by the convoluted world of mortgage-back securities and collateralized debt obligations. As the housing market cratered in 2008, bringing down the entire economy with it, no one was spared. At the time, the average person had little understanding of the causes of the meltdown but clearly felt the impact. In the aftermath of the crisis, there was finger-pointing and recriminations across the board, with public trust in financial institutions, regulators, ratings agencies, and politicians plummeting. They all had their version of the truth, none of which resonated with the average citizen. Two factors were working against gaining a better understanding of what happened and thus determining the proper corrective action: wholesale loss of trust and the inherent complexity of the issue.

The film was useful in unpacking this complicated mess by telling a story through the eyes of people closest to the carnage. There was the contrarian hedge fund manager who successfully shorted the market and made billions, and the investment houses and regulators operating in a state of denial, assuming that housing prices could only go up and that rising foreclosure rates were not a concern. There was also the over-leveraged homeowner facing the realities of negative equity. The current state was working out well for the financial firms and ratings agencies. They were raking up massive fees and were not motivated to seek out contrarian points of view. Homeowners saw home prices continue to go up and wanted to believe the party would never end. This created the perfect environment for confirmation bias to take hold, where people only seek out data points that reinforce what they already believe. In this case, it was that the market could only go up, and there is no real systemic risk. It was a toxic mix of blind faith and willful ignorance.

The film had the essential elements of good storytelling:  setting the context and the characters and telling the tale in a narrative form or story arc. Good storytelling engages the viewer or listener, makes them relate in some way to the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. In The Big Short, the narrative unfolded in a cascading wave of causation: personal incomes stagnating, loan defaults rising, and prices on mortgage-back securities dropping exposing the extremely leveraged positions by traders at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and many others. As we all know, the story didn't end well, except of course for the contrarian hedge fund managers.   

Context and Causation

Traditional communication efforts regarding data and analytics fall short because they don’t set the proper context and don’t unpack complexity by laying out the trail of causation in narrative form. Too often the result is stakeholders that are tuned out, confused, overwhelmed, or mistrustful — most of whom will fall back on their mental shortcuts, making decisions riddle with biases.


To get your team or organization to begin making smarter, data-driven decisions, storytelling can be a very effective tool. By using this method to inform your decision-making processes, you are better able to engage your various stakeholders by setting the proper context, have them relate to the problem by identifying with the characters and situation, and walk away with a clearer understanding of complex issues. To be clear, like any tool storytelling can be used to manipulate and deceive. It’s incumbent upon leaders in any organization to establish a culture of trust and candor that under girds this approach. So, next time you have to present your data, think about the story you are trying to tell. And pay attention to those contrarians in your midst. 


Photo credit:  Paramount Pictures