False Narratives and Data Storytelling

  • 30 December 2018
  • Written by: Tommaso Conte



Communication is a complex process that develops starting from the impulse of a sender, who encodes the information in words or symbols, and that through different channels and means reaches the receiver, who decodes the message to understand the information in it contained.

The complexity derives from the possibility of incurring errors in the three salient moments of this process: the coding of the message, the transmission through the different channels or the decoding by the receiver.

Any failure in the correct execution of one of these moments leads to a fallacious, missing or even incorrect communication.

One of the potentially negative results in which the communicative process falls very frequently are the so-called “False Narratives”. These turn out to be perceptions, interpretations, ideas or wrong stories in which a subject could incur when a message is communicated to him. It is also the case, for example, of False Narratives in Data Storytelling (the case that interests us most here).

Perspective of the communicating subject

If we place ourselves in the perspective of the communicating subject, it is impossible to predict, in an absolutely correct manner, the interpretation that our interlocutors will make of the message, and it is therefore very complex to direct it and aim it in the desired direction. What we must therefore pay close attention to are the possible communication errors that the sender could, even unconsciously, do in transmitting a message. Also in this case the problem is twofold: the False Narratives may arise as a result of errors in the communication of data, in their visualization, or as a result of the cognitive biases of the communicator.


Data Visualization

In fact, it is necessary to distinguish between “information visualization” and “data visualization”. The first focuses on presenting information about already known relationships. On the contrary, “data visualization” refers to the presentation of data on newly discovered, innovative relationships, such as a new market segment or new technologies (Watson, 2017). The distinction is important because the False Narratives are more widespread in the case of presentation of new, unknown and usual data for the listener.


Perspective of the receiver

The human mind often reasons for categorizations: we tend to insert each new external stimulus into mental categories that help us understand and interpret reality. The presentation of new data then clashes with the clusters that our interlocutor uses to decode this information, and therefore there is a high risk that the data will be interpreted in the wrong way for an incorrect categorization. As communicators what can be done is to present the data in order to facilitate the correct insertion of information in the mental clusters of our interlocutor. Family views, for example, may be easier to interpret, and therefore a great communicative value should be attributed to adherence to carefully established design standards (Watson, 2017).

In a recent study, Wakeling et al. (2015) considered different views in terms of accuracy, speed and security, which are commonly used measures to evaluate graphic literacy. The most interesting and relevant outcomes of this study concern familiarity: more familiar and simple graphs (eg bar, line, pie) are interpreted more accurately and quickly than the less familiar ones (for example, tables, stacked bar, bubble).

These results are important because they underline how our mind is sensitive to stimuli already known, interpreted and elaborated even in front of new stimuli: simplifying the presentation and visualization of data, mitigates the cognitive effort that our interlocutor must make, allowing an greater investment of resources in their correct interpretation.

Another interesting aspect regarding data visualization has always to do with familiarity, understood not as the use of forms known by the interlocutor, but in terms of time and habit. In fact, there is a big difference between the visualization and the presentation of “onetime” data, that is on one occasion, compared to the recurring ones. With the former the communicator explains the data and their visualization and if the problems of understanding persist, it can create a new visualization that is simpler and more comprehensible. With recurring visualizations instead, the focus is more on training users, who constantly in contact with the stimulus, become familiar with it and will therefore understand increasingly complex visualizations when they will be used in their work (Watson, 2017).

Using a recurring and continuous data visualization technique, makes clear reference to storytelling as a procedure of communicating a message through a story: a continuous flow of information presented in the correct way, aimed at facilitating its interpretation by the receiver, constitutes a strong asset not only in the short term but, as mentioned above, about training, especially in the long term.


False narratives caused by the communicator

As anticipated above, in addition to the visualization of the data, the causes of the onset of False Narratives can be traced back to the presence of cognitive biases in the communicator. As human beings, we are all subject to error. Cognitive bias exists because our brain and mind are not infallible, omniscient and perfect, but are instead dynamic, constantly changing and determined by learning and experience in the world.

As far as communication is concerned, the main and most common bias concerning the communicator and the receiver are “Overconfidence” and “Inertia” (Shimizu, 2017). With “Overconfidence”, reference is made to the overestimation by the senders of the actual quality of their communication, ie the degree of sharing with the interlocutors, or of themselves, of their abilities or their knowledge (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Although security in itself can be considered a fundamental quality for personal or professional identity, in a communicative process, excessive security can have effects, which if not controlled, can have dangerous consequences. The overconfidence of the communicator in fact determines what is called “perception gap”, a perceptual emptiness due to the fact that while the communicator could believe that he has communicated in an exhaustive and comprehensible way, to have transmitted contents and interpretations, and that therefore also the objectives, the values ​​and the strategy were well shared, the interlocutors could not see the thing in the same way (Shimizu, 2017).

If communication can be defined as “the process by which an idea is transferred from a source to a recipient with the intention of modifying its behavior” (Rogers & Agarwala-Rogers, 1976), it is clear that in a situation such as the one described, in which misunderstanding and misalignment are the masters, communication will not only be wrong but could lead the interlocutor to make bad decisions both with regard to himself and his activity but also towards the communicator.

One of the possible consequences of the presence of this perceptual distance is that in fact the latter is pointed out as not competent, not suitable for the aims and objectives of the interlocutor (Beer & Eisenstat, 1996; Guth & MacMillan, 1986).


False narratives of the receiver

On this point the second bias, cited just before, which is that of the “Inertia”, is grafted. This term refers to the tendency of the human being to maintain his own state of departure, his current state, rejecting the change and influence of new ideas (Huff et al., 1992). Inertia depends on a strong cognitive and behavioral rooting of the structures currently used to analyze, interpret and behave in reality and in the world. Man is a fundamentally conservative being, who shuns change and what is new and different. Before integrating a new element into its existence it needs a long and complex process: to question one’s beliefs, one’s own values ​​and what one has lived up to at a given moment, requires in fact a huge psychic effort. Moving away from what is known, safe and predictable in favor of an unknown or unpredictable context or element causes feelings and perceptions of anxiety and fear (Kotter, 2008).


If the communicator then transmits a message that provides innovative information, or new or different strategies or operations, he meets strong resistance. What could happen is that the interlocutor, firm on the structures and processes linked to an old strategy, does not understand at all the real meanings embodied in the message (Guth and MacMillan, 1986; Huff et al., 1992). It may also happen that some may interpret a new element with an old goal, an old perspective and behave accordingly. Therefore, those who receive a message, even if they find useful the thoughts and ideas that can make, for example, a new, more effective strategy, tend to hold them back because they expect that these may have negative consequences (Detert & Burris, 2007; & Trevino, 2010).

In general, therefore, we can argue that individuals with whom we relate, subject to habit and operational routines, resist a new data, a new element, as they fear that it jeopardizes the status quo (Guth and MacMillan, 1986 ; Kotter, 2008). The concept of status quo is one of the foundational dimensions of inertia bias, which indicates the state, physical or mental, from which individuals struggle to deviate.

How then can a communicator handle all this amount of resistance?

A possible strategy could be to use “gentle pushes”, “Nudge”, as they are defined in the theories of behavioral economics (Thaler & Sustain, 2008). A nudge is any aspect of the architecture of choices that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without prohibiting any option and without any form of coercion. These aspects, even if apparently small, can have great effects. In the case of a communicative process, in fact, they can intervene as a solution both for overconfidence and inertia. Regarding the first, a nudge that could be used takes the name of “Expect Error”, that is to present to the communicator all the errors in which it could incur in communicating a message and the negative consequences to which it could bring. For example, this article itself could be a useful tool for this purpose.

A further nudge that could positively affect the performance of the communicator by eliminating the bias of the overconfidence is the “Feedback”. Receiving critical, complete and effective feedback after a performance or after a communication act can help the communicator to make subsequent communications more effective. It may seem a common and widespread concept, but the interlocutors are unlikely to be sincere at least as difficult as the communicators are ready to accept any criticism.

Other measures on which the communicator can rely to align the messages, values ​​and objectives that he intends to communicate to the expectations and interpretation of his interlocutors concern the modalities with which the content is transmitted. First of all, whoever communicates the message should pay attention to “speaking for values”. This term refers to a communication that does not only consider analytical and statistical data, but instead focuses on objectives and shared values ​​within the context in which communication takes place. If the communicator manages to build his intervention on these bases, inspiring the receivers and harnessing their imagination (D. Barry & Elmes, 1997; McKee, 2003), communication will be more effective and even the innovative data will enter more easily and with less resistance in the receiver’s mind, because the communication that emphasizes objectivity and rationality risks exacerbating prejudice and inertia.

Storytelling is the best way to achieve this result.

When values ​​and objectives are communicated objectively and analytically, the effects of communication are less promising than when they are narratively communicated. In fact, when an objective and analytical communication is adopted, greater communication is required, a greater effort too, not simple to be implemented by the communicator and not easy to decode and interpret by the interlocutors (Shimizu, 2017)).

In conclusion, communication is a far from easy process. Full of pitfalls but also opportunities. It is the means by which one enters into relationship with the other, with whom one moves in the world. It is what distinguishes the human being from all other species.

A communicator must be aware of all the biases they may be subject to, how to foresee them and, if they arise, how to deal with them, and must know all the means, techniques and devices that allow the receiver to interpret in the simplest and correct way the message communicated.

The danger of the creation of False Narratives lies in how the message is communicated, both in terms of the person who communicates, and in terms of the tools and methods with which it is communicated. The focal point, however, remains the interpretation that takes place in the receiver’s mind and it is with the fixed eye on this that every communication act should be built: “No matter how frequently or clearly top managers believe they communicate, the effects are minimal if organizational members do not listen to or understand the messages “(Markus, 1994; Rogers & Agarwala-Rogers, 1976)



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