Register for "A Guide to Data Products: Everything You Need to Understand, Plan, and Implement" - Friday, May 31,1:00 p.m. ET

Data Storytelling, Part V: Of MICE and Management

Data Storytelling Series - Part V

Storytellers need to decide what kind of story they should tell. A number of requirements cascade from this choice: For instance, it could affect the kind of audience that they will reach or determine what they should leave out. Let’s look at this with a little bit of detail, and then discuss how professional storytellers approach the decision.

Different Needs, Different Stories

Let’s think about four different situations, each of which might need you to focus your storytelling efforts differently.

Suppose your company’s board is thinking about branching out into an adjacent market. It doesn’t really matter what it is: Say you’ve got a customer base for hay bale twine and they’re considering a move into feed bags – a market that’s already commoditized, but in which they might be able to find economies of scale. What can you tell them that will help them make good decisions about this potential effort?

Now suppose they’re considering a new product – one that’s based on a new idea, and doesn’t appear to have any competitors on the market. Think of 3M’s Post-It™ Note or the Sony Walkman™ for historical examples. How can you help them understand the potential for this product?

What if they want to discuss something more mundane, such as current performance? What can you say that tells them more than a giant, dashboard-shaped pile of KPIs, OKRs, and random metrics?

Consider how you might help them respond to the COVID-19 crisis. What has changed? What changes are permanent? How can those changes be incorporated into the company worldview?

The MICE Quotient

In fiction, authors have found it convenient to categorize story types through the MICE Quotient.

MICE stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.

The concept was invented by Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game, and popularized in his book, Characters and Viewpoint. The MICE quotient suggests four different approaches, each of which can be applied to the stories above.

The MICE Quotient identifies story types that suit different situations better.

Milieu. A milieu is the world in which our characters are acting. The canonical example is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which we read in part for the tale of the One Ring but in large part to explore the rich environment and history of Middle-Earth. If your board is thinking about entering the feed bags market, there’s an immense amount of detail that you might want to show. Your presentation of facts may be less linear; the level of detail may be deeper. You should have a narrative thread – Frodo traveled from the Shire to Mordor and back again – but as you talk about the market’s recent history, you should spend enough time on the competitive landscape, market pressures, the causes of volatility, customers, and the like in order to really help the board understand the kind of market they’re entering if they choose to do so. You’ll want to help them take in the broad sweep of the market and use good data storytelling techniques – great visuals, personal impact, clear flows of cause and effect – to help them absorb the most critical details.

Idea. An idea story uses a narrative form to help the reader learn something specific as they read. For our purposes, this isn’t about something that exists; rather, it’s an exploration of things that might be. Where a milieu data story explores things as they have been and currently are, the idea data story explores the what-if possibilities, such as the amount of revenue in current markets that might be disrupted by a new product, the potential conversion of professional services revenue into monthly recurring software revenue, or the possibility of fast-follower competitors. When your story emphasizes an idea, you need to think a lot about its implications. Unlike a fictional story, you won’t be limited to a single narrative thread, so make varying estimates and explore them all rather than locking yourself into one timeline. Finally, note that you’ll be making assumptions that need to be declared explicitly so your readers or listeners will understand why you believe those implications to be what they are.

Character. Characters are the nouns that your audience uses when they talk about the business. A character story dwells on one or more characters to explore its nature or the relationships among characters. Thus, for example, if you want to understand your company’s performance – to do more than just throw up a wall of KPIs – you need to understand the different “characters” that your businesspeople talk about: customers, support staff, suppliers, retailers, partners, and so on. Ideally, you’ll want to understand how they measure themselves, because that helps identify incentives that can be good or “perverse” (e.g., think about school kids being “taught to the test” instead of learning critical thinking skills). Your story about company performance then becomes the motivating factors and outcomes that result from the interactions of these characters, which is much more informative than a dashboard full of numbers.

Event. An event story focuses on cause and effect, tracing causes back as far as necessary (but no farther) through the present, at least. Ideally, unlike an ordinary story, you will want to present possible futures and the potential events or efforts that would make one more likely than another. You’ll probably have some of the characters of your business to consider, but the details you provide will be more about how the event affected them than about their motivations and interactions. Issues of permanence abound in event stories – an organizational change or shift in baseline measurements that resulted from the COVID-19 crisis may well last long after the crisis has passed – and you’ll want to explore what that means for different parts of your organization that might have depended on the status quo.

Mix and Match

Don’t let the MICE Quotient make you rigid. It’s a tool to guide your thinking about how you will approach your story. An Event story will have elements of Character against a Milieu in which Ideas abound, so you can think about all of these approaches at the same time. But one story (whether a data story or narrative fiction) tends to have one of these elements as primary. Think about what your audience would normally want to hear and what they need for their current situation: The odds are high that one of these story types will surface first. Then craft the best story you can using the highest-quality data you can get.

Data? Yes, we should talk about that, too. See you next month.

Jake Freivald

Jake Freivald spends his time at the intersection of data management, analytics, and business communication. His twenty-five year career in software includes developing and marketing products for data warehousing, data...

More About Jake Freivald