Once upon a time in DaTa Land — the role of narrative therapy in data storytelling

Data can be powerful in changing negative stories that inhibit society’s progress … here’s how to take control of your narrative

I often use narrative therapy when I train teams in impactful data storytelling. It involves re-storying existing negative stereotypes and unhelpful narratives using data in a way that is strategic, honest, healing and transformative.

‘Narrative therapy is a form of counselling that views people as separate from their problems. This allows them to get some distance from the issue, … feel more empowered to make changes in their thought patterns and behaviour, and rewrite their life story for a future that reflects who they are, what they are capable of, and what their purpose is, separate from their problems.’ — Psychology Today

How is this relevant for ESG impact?

A common barrier to ESG impact is an existing narrative that holds us back from achieving positive social and environmental transformation. If we consider any issue or problem that society faces currently, we soon become aware that it is accompanied by a barrage of negative stories and stereotypes.

If the aspect of society or the environment that we are trying to change has an existing negative narrative attached to it, it may be challenging to get support for our initiative from stakeholders like investors, communities or governments. Of even greater concern is that we may buy into negative stereotypes about ourselves, our communities or our organisations.

An existing narrative can be so widespread and pervasive that it results in a ‘single story’ that is difficult to see beyond.

‘The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED Global talk)

What we are aiming to do therefore, is to create multiple positive and empowering stories rather than having a single story dominate how the world sees us or even how we see ourselves.

In order to change perceptions and expectations, we want to replace existing negative stereotypes and assumptions with facts and information. To achieve this, data can be used very effectively in supporting the rewriting of a narrative.

Applying the principles of narrative therapy to data storytelling

There are many ways to use data for storytelling, and the skill of a data scientist is to find the most appropriate and impactful data story for what a team or an organisation wants to communicate.

The assumptions used in narrative therapy come from the postmodernist movement, which views reality as a social construct that has a highly subjective lens. When applied to data science, the following principles emerge:

  • Data, information and facts do not exist in a vacuum. They derive their meaning and significance from the context in which they exist. This is often the socio-economic context, but can also be the organisational, political or other context.
  • When we seek to tell a story through data, it is not sufficient to just use numbers or graphs. Words are necessary to link the ‘cold, hard facts’ to findings, implications and action plans for positive transformation. During this process, we need to be sensitive to what we are communicating and the fact that the language we use will influence the ongoing narrative of our organisation, country, world, etc.
  • Stories are super effective in helping to connect people, places or organisations to emotions and perceptions. Related themes, emotions or perceptions are what create narratives … and narratives assist us to organise and maintain our view of reality. This applies to ‘data stories’ too.
  • Objectivity is inevitably compromised when narratives are crafted, even where data is used to back up the stories that are told. Understanding this enables data scientists to appreciate that there can be different interpretations, insights and conclusions based on how data is presented. This realisation highlights the importance of using data responsibly.

What techniques can be used for transforming narratives?

Narrative therapy was introduced and popularised by Michael White and David Epston in the late twentieth century. There are various techniques and processes that can be employed for this form of transformation:

  • The re-storying process can be as simple as introducing a few new stories or making minor alterations to the existing story using missing facts and information. Sometimes though, an entirely new story may need to be crafted. If there is a healing or transformative component to this step, it is important that we find our own voice and are able to tell our story in our own words.
  • The process of separating ourselves from the issues or problems that we have is known as externalisation, and serves two main purposes. Firstly, it enables us to understand that the problems we have do not define who we are. In other words, we have control over our identity. Secondly, if problems are external to who we are, it means that we can change our situation by resolving them.
  • Another approach entails reducing the problem or issue into parts. This process of deconstruction involves making issues specific, instead of overgeneralising which leads to stereotypes and biases. Consider what the aim of the story is — are we wanting to raise funding for a project, create a specific work of art like a movie or a music video, or show how a particular intervention achieved great success?
  • Introducing multiple stories with different perspectives enables us to present several unique outcomes that challenge the existing narrative, thereby changing the storyline or creating many storylines. Positive and affirming stories help to remove the focus from a single story of an insurmountable problem or overwhelmingly negative identity. Illustrating that there can be various perspectives and ways to view the current situation enables us to reimagine the problem and see solutions or possibilities.
  • There is no absolute truth when it comes to story or narrative. This aligns with the philosophy of existentialism (the search for meaning) which is based on the belief that the world has no inherent meaning. We can therefore create our own meaning and purpose, instead of accepting any existing narrative as the only reality.

The bottom line …

When we target social or environmental transformation, we want to achieve radical change. After all, the word ‘transformation’ means ‘a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved’.

Negative narratives often make problems appear overwhelming and insurmountable, to such an extent that some form of counselling is required to move forward. Narrative therapy can be used for healing and transformation through rewriting our stories.

Once we understand that any narrative is a result of a series of subjective stories, we can work towards relating affirming and empowering stories to change our storyline.

Writer, explorer and lifelong learner