The Connection Between Data + Storytelling

Stefani Drake at Yale

On Sunday, I spoke at Yale University for Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference. While I don’t have a breakthrough cure for a terminal illness or sustainable model for the developing world, I do have a deep appreciation for global health and the life saving work that is done throughout the world. My mission is simple, to weave available data into stories so that NGOs, medical institutions and researchers can expand their reach and impact the lives of more people.

This conference is different than many. It takes an interactive approach where the audience is encouraged to engage with speakers and talk collaboratively about the issues facing global health. It’s exciting, engaging and challenging. Unite for Sight has done a remarkable job at bringing together brilliant minds and innovative thinkers. My challenge to the group, how do you harness that energy and empower the audience to be a point of connection for their specific organization. I truly believe that any one person can create change that ripples throughout an organization, and below I touch on three ways it can be done.

1. Understanding Your Data

As a communicator, I believe in the power of data. It tells you who your audience is, what they respond to, when they take action and when your message fails. If you aren’t regularly reviewing your website, email and social media analytics, then you don’t have the pulse of your supporters, partners and donors. 

Similarly, those in the humanitarian field or research lab have valuable data and insights on programming. The communications team needs to work collaboratively with all departments in order to tell a story and work toward the mission of the organization. 

Your audience may span from government funders, corporate partners and grassroots supporters. They will each enter at various points of your messaging and be interested in a variety of stories, so it is imperative that you to analyze your data and see what stories people respond to, and what messages may not resonate. Harness the power of that information and focus your message on the areas that create someone to take action, while simultaneously learning from message failures. 

2. Clearly State Your Goals

A roadmap is important when working on storytelling. That’s where data is useful. When you know that you want to raise awareness in 10 more communities, or fundraise an additional $10,000 for a project, or engage 100 more volunteers, you can measure and track your progress. The more specific and clear you are with your communication goals, the more you can rely on your data to guide you and build out a successful roadmap to get you there.

For example, if you are a large NGO looking to scale into a new country and need funding to do so, you will likely write a lengthy grant full of budget projections, monitoring + evaluation tools, CVs for key staff, etc. All of this is important to a funder so that they know you are prepared and equipped to use their funding appropriately. The same principles should be applied in storytelling. If your goal is to raise $100,000 in grassroots donations through social media, then you need a comprehensive plan, backed by data, to get you there. 

All messaging should have purpose and when you figure out what it is you are trying to achieve, you can measure the results of your advocacy campaign or social fundraising efforts or year-end appeal and understand that one story may fall flat, but another inspired people to take action.

3. Collaborate    

While data can tell you if you’re on the right track, and your goals can bring your vision to life, collaboration is key to a truly successful organization. Every person on the team has a different perspective and understanding of the organization and it’s goals. Every person on the team also has access to various data points.

Never silo, always encourage the flow of information, a place to share and celebrate successes and a safe place to give feedback and report failures. When you work in synergy with the whole team, you are able to work more efficiently and powerfully toward your mission. Create healthy internal systems for communication so that you have access to all available data, learn about success stories in the field and quickly respond to and adjust strategies that aren’t working.

In the end, stories move people to action, but you need to understand what action you want people to take and be able to adjust your strategy along the way to meeting your goal. Harnessing your data takes you from your vision to achieving success.


Stefani Zimmerman Drake Headshot

Stefani is a strategy consultant + speaker with over a decade of experience working in the US government, international NGO space and with nonprofits. Currently on the UNDP's Roster of Communication Experts in Subsaharan Africa + certified in Google Analytics, Stefani is an analytical thinker and thoughtful storyteller who works with nonprofits + humanitarians to define who they are, elevate their influence and broaden their impact through strategic communications, branding + advocacy. Stefani lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, twin girls and rescue dog.