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Published November 12th 2018

Interview: Immediate Future Founder Katy Howell on Evidence-Based Storytelling

A second conversation with Katy Howell, in which we discuss the craft of evidence-based storytelling, and whether we can all do it.

“I’m not working in a forest,” Katy assures me.

I’m calling in to her stunning office and admiring a curved wooden desk and full-wall woodland scene as a backdrop. I can’t help but comment on how cool it looks.

She says that in the Immediate Future office there are lots of plants dotted around the place, and the background trees can be found throughout.

“Isn’t there something right about being a bit in touch with the real world?” she says. “I fear sometimes we live our lives so much through a screen.”

Katy is an advocate for making sure those working in digital are ‘earthed,’ saying walks with her two border collies are one of the great joys of her life.

In our chat (which goes on further here), we turn to a fundamental of human beings’ interactions with the real, and imagined, world – storytelling.

We don’t present data. We present a story.

Immediate Future is an agency that specializes solely in social media. Katy founded the company around 15 years ago and has worked in the marketing industry for 30 years.

This has given her a sharp eye for a golden insight, and she’s honed her presentation style so that numbers, graphs and raw data are kept to a minimum.

“The story is way more powerful than the data. I might be able to give you a nice stat to go around it, but the stat itself is not exciting. What’s exciting is that I’ve discovered a story with an opportunity.”

Katy says that the agency tries its hardest not to present graphs to clients. “I like them, but in the main most people actually don’t know how to read them and what they mean.”

I love Katy’s enthusiasm for the combination of numbers with compelling narratives. My work as a social data journalist requires that I find the stories hidden within social data and tell them on the Brandwatch blog. This mix of using your analytical and creative skills to make something that people can learn from is something I can really get behind.

Lots of people are doing it, Katy says, but not so many are talking about it.

“You’re not just saying this is a story, you’re also putting data behind it.

“Nobody’s talking about it – lots of people are doing it – but nobody is saying this is a thing and it’s evidence-based storytelling.”

Can anyone tell stories based on data?

Katy doesn’t need to sell the value of telling stories with social data to me, but I want to know if she thinks it’s something that comes naturally to all of us.

“We are all fundamentally storytellers, but I do think there’s some training needed,” she says.

From cave paintings through to Casper the ghost it’s true that humans have always told stories and we all respond to good ones. But telling stories with data, in front of a board room or in a written proposal or on the Brandwatch blog, takes practice.

Luckily for Katy, she’s always been comfortable with numbers. Her degree was in Genetics and Plant Sciences, so she was trained from the beginning of her career not to be frightened of them. Her studies might also explain her love for nature, and the importance of greenery in the Immediate Future offices.

When it comes to comfort with numbers, the same doesn’t go for everyone.

Like Tony Clement said in our recent chat with him, “The way you’re taught data and analytics in high school and college does more damage than good.”

Many of us put ourselves into the restrictive boxes of ‘analytical’ or ‘creative’ after our perceived failure or success at mathematics at school. It can be hard to shake this, but it’s important step in becoming a good data storyteller.

Getting out of the weeds

Becoming a good storyteller requires two things, Katy says: training and collaboration.

“Storytelling is a craft. It takes honing and just like an artist or a copywriter or a creative you have to practice it and practice it and practice it. And that’s the training – the practice.”

Doing it again and again is one thing, but working with others is equally important.

“I think it’s really difficult to lift your head out of data and say ‘where’s the story?’ It’s training and it’s collaboration. I say collaboration because even after 30 years in the industry I can’t do it alone.”

Katy describes how she can look at data for days and think she’s come up with a thread, but when someone else takes a fresh look they can offer a totally new perspective by looking at the bigger picture.

“It’s because I’m down here in the little weeds,” Katy says. It’s important to get outside opinions, especially if you’re spending a long time in the nitty-gritty.

Finding the time

We both agree that social media data is messy. But would Katy have it any other way?

“I love it because it’s natural speak,” she says. “Unstructured data is full of surprises. You think one thing and you discover something else.”

Of course, social media data doesn’t come without challenges. Its messiness can be its beauty and its vice.

“The biggest challenge of social media is unstructured data and it requires a real super-intelligent approach to extract the right information. And it can require enormous amounts of horrible grunt work to go what does that peak mean? Why are they talking about that and not talking about this?”

The grunt work Katy describes is something I’m well versed in. But things are getting easier, and she’s animatedly excited about the future. As the tools she uses become more advanced, time is being freed up to do the most important parts of her work – telling stories and finding opportunities for clients.

“As AI and deep learning and machine learning come into play in listening tools they are doing all the heavy lifting for us and that means I can spend more time storytelling and uncovering unusual behaviors and insights and opportunities for the brands we work with and that is so exciting for me. The tools are getting so good now, they’re getting so accurate.”

Finding their way out of the weeds, identifying the roots of a story and helping the insights blossom is what Immediate Future does best.

Huge thanks to Katy Howell for chatting with us. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

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