Taking a data-driven approach to telling stories will help HR professionals convince more stakeholders to support their initiatives, a communications specialist says.

"The best way to persuade, inspire, and convince others to do something is to bring together analytics and storytelling: to make data and statistics the foundation stones of the stories you tell," Sam Knowles says in his book Narrative by numbers.

While many more people tell stories now compared to 10 or even five years ago, enabled by technology and social media, this doesn't mean everyone does it well, he notes.

"The ability to look at, interrogate, and understand data sets, and then to extract only those elements of the data that you need to tell a convincing story – that takes real skill."

Focusing on analytics and data in storytelling makes the story "better, stronger, and more impactful", Knowles says. "It will help a wide variety of different people, in different types of organisation and at different levels of seniority, with the task of convincing people to support them. It will assist them in 'moving business'."

But data-driven storytelling is "very definitely" not solely about the facts, he says. "It's much more about knowing your audience – understanding whom you're trying to convince to do what – and then talking human."

Knowing the audience comes down to empathy, which is the "fundamental human quality that underpins brilliant storytelling".

"Empathy requires a storyteller to put themselves in the position of the individual or individuals she is trying to influence and wonder what it would be like to hear the story she plans to tell. How much detail do they want? What should the balance be between fact and rhetoric? How should I use emotion? What's the role for data and statistics? Should I show my workings out? Am I confident I know how I got to the answer I'm sharing? Could I justify my thinking if pressed?"

HR professionals who want to tell effective stories must "max out their empathy radar" and try to truly understand those they want to influence, Knowles says. Doing this will help them easily judge the role that data and statistics can – and should – play in their tale.

To be more empathetic, he says, HR should follow the 'cocktail party rule': "If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. If you want to be interesting, talk about what matters to those who are listening."

Knowles says the reason some "party guests" draw attention and gather a crowd is because they think before they arrive about who they will be talking to, and adjust their empathy radar based on who is at the party.

"[The rule] has particular resonance for how you choose to use data and statistics as a core foundation of your storytelling, but not as the story itself," he notes.

"Imagine how quickly your audience at a cocktail party would scuttle away like cockroaches if you started to list off a reel of statistics to try to make your point; if you used no emotion in your language..."

Knowles' book discusses what "talking human" sounds like, how HR professionals can find and use only relevant data, and more.

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