New York Times writer Nate Silver, based on his analysis of the numbers, predicted that the 49ers would win the Super Bowl.
I, based on my belief that the redemption of Ray Lewis (and his journey from accused murderer to mentor and motivational speaker) offered the American people a compelling and familiar narrative, predicted that the Ravens would win.
Nate Silver was wrong, and I was right.
Numbers vs. Narratives
Numbers are undeniably powerful.
Thanks to math, we have a semi-intelligent vehicle roving the surface of Mars, unmanned drones patrolling the skies, and enthralling games from Tetris to Angry Birds to help us pass the time. Thanks to math, we are also able to calculate the effectiveness of landing pages and the return on PPC buys.
But numbers are, in the end, merely numbers, and they do not, as we frequently hear, “speak for themselves.”
Humans need to speak for the numbers, and the way we do that is by telling stories.
Stories Make Us Human
“Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world,” writes Maria Popova. ”They are how we understand the world.”
She also quotes Oliver Sacks as saying…
“Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals.”
Given all the hype around Big Data and the persistent insistence that marketers need to use and understand metrics (which I totally believe they do), that insight should come as welcomed news: Yes, we need to “do the math” but to make sense of the math, to make sense of the world and pass this sense along to other people, we also need to “tell the story.”
Our ability to predict outcomes depends on our assumptions. If we assume that we’re playing with loaded dice, we won’t expect them to behave like standard dice.
Predicting the outcome of dice rolls or coin tosses is nothing, however, compared to predicting the outcome of human interactions, particularly complex interactions like championship football games. The fact that human judgement plays a role—Was he offsides? Was that holding? Was that pass interference?—injects an element of quasi-unpredictable randomness into the equation.
The fact that there may actually be something else going on (maybe something nefarious as Colin Quinn suggested in a Super Bowl tweet) or that, heaven forbid, people might actually cheat adds a whole other layer entirely.
What’s Your Story?
The bottom line is this. Numbers and statistics can and should guide our decisions. But it is our stories that change the world.