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February 13, 2019

Data Storytelling: The interface of the past, present and future

By: Nate Nichols

Back in 2010, Narrative Science was spun out of Northwestern University’s Intelligent Information Laboratory. Since then, we’ve added 100 employees, occupied four offices, filed dozens of patents, and served 100+ enterprise customers. As we continue to grow and learn and create, almost everything at Narrative Science has evolved or changed, except one thing.

The one thing that has stayed consistent? Our mission. From the very beginning, Narrative Science has set out to empower everyone, regardless of job or skill set, to understand data, make better decisions, and drive better outcomes for their business. As a company, we believe that storytelling is the only way to do this. Spreadsheets require analysis, and dashboards need interpretation. Reports are filed, while stories are read.

For as long as there have been people, there have been stories. Storytelling is how we best represent, understand, and share our ideas and knowledge. Storytelling is how we inspire action; how we best communicate. All of which is why we at Narrative Science believe storytelling is the most obvious and natural interface to data insights.

The Data Paradox

Even since our founding, the amount of data collected every day is absolutely staggering, and it is expected to keep growing at an even faster rate. Analysts believe the size of our “data universe” doubles every two years.

With all of the time and money that is put into collecting, prepping, analyzing, and reporting on data, one would think that it would be easier than ever for people to use data in their day-to-day lives. In reality, we have all seen the opposite. Understanding data has become a skill – and a highly competitive one at that. Companies are scrambling to hire data scientists, analysts, and many other roles with data science skills.

In today’s data-rich world, everyone is expected to understand and use data to make decisions every day, regardless of position, function, or skill set. Now, we are seeing new trends emerge – roles such as a ‘data translator’ or data visualization tools that claim to make data analysis easy for everyone.

The Definition of Insanity

This is happening everywhere. Companies are hiring data scientists at an unprecedented rate, and the business intelligence and analytics market has ballooned to over $50 billion. But, these methods just aren’t working. Analysts are still spending over 50% of their time reporting instead of doing actual analysis, and according to Gartner, business intelligence adoption rates cap out at only 25%.

Companies are doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Why is this method not working? Because we’re expecting everyone to be a data person. But that’s just not the case. Spreadsheets require analysis, and dashboards require interpretation. Both require skills and time that many businesspeople just don’t have today.

Breaking the Cycle through Storytelling

At Narrative Science, we believe there is a better way. We create technology that turns data into language. We are providing a new way for organizations to empower everyone through data storytelling.

This is hardly new. In fact, it is not new at all. Human brains are hardwired for storytelling – and have been for centuries. Storytelling is an essential part of human knowledge transmission. Through language – verbal, written, or even song or poetry – tradition, processes, and more have been passed on from generation to generation.

Even in modern times, we aren’t the only ones to recognize the profound effects of storytelling. Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint in company meetings, replacing it with “six-page memo(s) that are narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.”

It is only in the past few decades that we have expected humans to learn another way of communicating – through the medium of data. We are trying to force humans to learn how to analyze and read numbers and structured data, instead of the other way around. We are trying to force people to speak the machine’s language, instead of creating technology that can speak ours.

Introducing Lexio

That’s why we built Lexio. Lexio is an AI product that translates your business data into plain-English stories. Lexio automatically analyzes your data, surfaces relevant information, and writes a personalized story that anyone on your team can understand or share throughout your organization.

For more information on Lexio, keep an eye out for our next blog post. If you want to try it yourself, you can sign up for our beta program here.