From Tau=10.8, Power=22, to Storytelling that Resonates

On June 10, 2018, the Mars rover Opportunity transmitted two values:

  • tau = 10.8
  • power = 22

Doing what any good analyst does, a scientist at JPL immediately put these data points into context, looking at the overall trends: “The atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover has increased to a record 10.8 on Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018). Power levels on the rover have dropped to a record low of ~22 watt hours. As expected, Opportunity has tripped a low-power fault and gone silent… It is expected that we will not hear from the rover until the storm subsides over the rover site.”

Seven months later, Jacob Margolis, a science reporter at NPR station 89.3 KPCC, did something different. He gave this data an emotional spin:

Margolis anthropomorphized Opportunity and gave the numbers a resonance that they lacked. Technically, of course, the data didn’t say it was getting darker, only that it was the darkest yet reported. But he translated the data into a story, and the story he told went viral. “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

Now imagine doing the same thing for market research.

  • The data:
    • Relevance = 10%
    • Purchase likelihood = 8%
  • Context:
    • “This concept had the lowest relevance and purchase likelihood of any product concept we’ve ever tested.”
  • Emotional ramifications:
    • “Launching this product would be a serious mistake that would jeopardize careers and perhaps even the company.”

Inspiring people with data requires going beyond the numbers, establishing a wider context, and finding the emotional heart of the story.

And that’s our opportunity.

Check out the Principles Express class, Communicating Research Results, for more on storytelling.

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