Storytelling, when data isn't enough

Photo Credit Markus Spiske

Photo Credit Markus Spiske

Data is important. Data-driven decision making is, for good reason, currently a buzz phrase in marketing.

The thing is, data isn't enough.

Not by a long shot.

And in fact, relying on data alone will set you up for failure.

When doing research for a customer narrative I uncovered a fascinating story that demonstrates the limits of data.

It also proves the importance of storytelling. On two important fronts.

I'll share the story, and then the proof points.

The story I found was one about quality assurance. Something that many of us take for granted. Original story credit: Steve Prevette who shared the 'The 20 Pound Sledgehammer' quality assurance story on

Steve's story is a retelling of his father's. The below includes some changes to modernize and simplify.

A castings factory with brand new technology was struggling to figure out why the thin cooling fins produced by their multi-million dollar, hi-tech, automated machine were all breaking. All of the data and specifications for casting machines proved that the cooling fins should have been strong. The managers and engineers worked long hours trying to figure out the problem. Data were analyzed, computer figures verified.  Many systems and process checks were made, but still, the fins were breaking.

Then Steve's father decided to watch a casting being made.  The patterns were brought out and aligned and then the sand was blown into the molds automatically by the machine.  The metal was poured in.  The castings were lowered to the basement to be cooled.

His father followed the casting to the basement.  There was a worker in the basement with a 20-pound sledgehammer.  The worker came up and swung the sledge into the cast.  Sand and cooling fins went flying.  Steve's father asked the worker what he was doing. He replied,  “I'm doing what I do to every casting - knocking the sand off.”  Most of the foundry workforce had been transferred from a traditional “shovel and sand” foundry to this modern, automated facility with a minimum of preparation.

All the data analysis in the world couldn't solve this problem.

That's our first storytelling proof point. Story "telling" is a way of the recounting what happened to who and how they responded to it, in the real world. Through that, we can discover the elusive 'why.' In this case "why are the fins failing?"

Steve's father engaged in story "viewing." He went beyond data and peeled back the lid on the story "making" that was happening.

Seeing the story unfold in the real world provided the insights needed to solve the problem.

That brings us to the second proof point for story. Steve's father's telling of the story that he saw is what both solved the problem and resulted in a story that was told so far and wide you are now reading about it over 50 years later and many miles away from the metal foundry that the story took place in.

Data isn't enough. Make sure you prioritize story. Then use story to solve problems and share your learnings.

So, how do you do that? 

  1. Ensure you prioritize story alongside data
  2. Look for stories in your business that you can tell to affect change
  3. Be intentional about you’re the stories you are making so that others can re-tell and spread your message

Authentic living. Authentic stories. Authentic inspiration and ideas to those you lead.

On to the links

First up:

I love this article and how it breaks down Warren Buffett's approach to storytelling. I'm a particular fan of how it calls out the power of anecdotes and metaphor. Something I like to refer to as distilled storytelling.

Then it's:

We use a slightly different approach to draw out our clients story (a narrative interview and research process, which then informs a rebranding effort amongst other things.) that being said this article has some excellent points on shining a light on an authentic story vs. inventing something made up.

And finally:

A simple reminder about focusing on the moment vs. rushing to the future

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Our secret sauce is storytelling for business growth and transformation. We can help you cut through the noise and improve your reputation. We love helping business leaders understand, use and apply storytelling in business via writing, presentations, video, strategy and actionable plans. | Sign up for free storytelling tips to your inbox.

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