One of my favorite works of nonfiction is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. In this book, Capote tells the story of a senseless and brutal quadruple murder, and the two men who committed the heinous crime. He also examines the moral, ethical, and legal underpinnings of capital punishment. On its surface, this may seem like pretty grim and grisly material for a best selling and Pulitzer-nominated book. But Capote’s way of telling this tale is intriguing and captivating. It’s difficult to put it down. It’s nonfiction, but it reads like a novel.
What Capote understood was this: people like stories. He took this tragic and terrible event and turned it into a compelling narrative. Had he used a “just the facts” style of writing, it would have been dull, boring, even clinical. But he makes you feel that you know these people.
We can all take a lesson from Capote here. In an age in which data reigns supreme, it can be easy and tempting to rely solely on the data itself. We can easily forget that we need to craft the story that the data tells. Data is the raw facts that we collect and analyze. Data, in and of itself, has no intrinsic value. Data simply is. Information is data that’s been aggregated and organized. Knowledge is results from analyzing and drawing conclusions from information. Data and information are critical to creating knowledge. But neither data nor information are effective at telling stories. Knowledge is.
If I were to tell you that 28% of children in the world suffer from persistent hunger, what I’ve done is present you with data. If I tell you that children who suffer from hunger tend to live in certain areas of the world, I’ve provided information. When I show you a photo of a starving child, and I lay out some concrete steps that you can take to help alleviate her suffering, I’ve shared knowledge with you. The knowledge is far more emotionally compelling than the data or information because it tells a story.
Whether you are interviewing for a new role, trying to land a new client, or launching a new product into the market, you need to tell a story. Going to the interview and saying that you have 15 years of experience in cost accounting is conveying data. It does nothing to tell the interviewer what is unique about you.
From conversations to cave paintings, hieroglyphics to early alphabets, hot-lead type to texting—human beings have always been storytellers. It’s how we communicate, and the story you tell your audience is critical to your career and your business. Your story communicates your brand, conveys your values, and motivates others. To create a story, you must impart knowledge by taking disparate pieces of information and weaving them together into a meaningful narrative. Sound, reliable knowledge, however, allows you to create the message for your audience—whether that’s your customers, your interviewer, or your manager.
Data is the basis, not the whole, of your intelligence. Use it to create information, use the information to create knowledge, use the knowledge to craft a compelling story that solves problems—and create stories that compel the action you desire.