4.1 Stories and Storytelling

Consider the following text:

“There once was a fish named Marlin, who loved his son Nemo more than anything. Every day he tried to protect Nemo from the ocean, which Merlin feared. One day Nemo decided his dad was wrong and he swam away. But he was captured by a diver. Because of that, Marlin had to leave the safety of his reef to find his son. And because of that, he learned to let go of his fears and trust that Nemo had what it takes to take care of himself. Ever since that day, Marlin gave Nemo the space to learn on his own.”

You will, of course, have recognized this as the plot of Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Is this blurb a story in its own right? If so, what is its purpose? Its audience? Its moral?28

4.1.1 What Are Stories?

Human beings are social animals; and integral part of the human experience is communication with other humans (and some pets). Communication is an evolutionary trick, which played a crucial role in the brain’s development and its ability to host a mind: the transfer of ideas happens much faster than the transfer of genes.

Indeed, what concept (“idea”) comes to mind when you see the following picture?

We do not even need an image: a simple mention of the word “elephant” will make one think of an elephant. It is that easy to transmit ideas.

And how do we communicate? In a very clever way: we tell stories to one another.29

Greek Myth: Cassiopeia

Queen Cassiopeia was the wife of King Cepheus of Ethiopia. She boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the 50 sea nymphs. They were enraged by her comments and appealed to Poseidon to punish Cassiopeia for her boastfulness.

The sea god obliged and sent Cetus, a sea monster, to ravage the coast of Cepheus’ kingdom. Cepheus turned to an oracle for help: in order to appease Poseidon, he and Cassiopeia had to sacrifice their daughter Andromeda to the sea monster.

They did so reluctantly, leaving Andromeda chained to a rock for Cetus to find. However, she was saved in the last minute by Perseus, a Greek hero.

Perseus and Andromeda were later married. At the wedding, one of her former suitors claimed that he was the only one who had the right to marry her.

There was a fight and Perseus, outnumbered, used the head of Medusa to defeat his opponents. One look at Medusa’s head turned them all into stone. The king and queen also met their end.

Poseidon then placed Cassiopeia and Cepheus in the sky: Cassiopeia was condemned to circle the celestial pole forever, and spends half the year upside down in the sky as punishment for her vanity (based on [50]).

Obviously, no one believes that this actually happened. Poseidon does not exist (Percy Jackson adventures notwithstanding), there is no sea monster, Cassiopeia and Cephus were not placed into the sky. There might have been an Andromeda and a Perseus, however, or at least real individuals on whom the mythology characters were based; the sea monster might represent the sighting of a giant squid, perhaps, or a once-in-a-lifetime storm that caused untold damages? At this point in time, so far removed from any historical events that may have informed the story, it matters but very little.

But the point of the story is crystal clear: vanity is the root of all problems. Had the Queen stayed humble, no calamity would have befell her (and her kingdom). As above, so below: there is a lesson there for all ancient Greeks.[Well, Greek women, presumably. Achilles was a noted braggart in Homer’s version of the tale (The Iliad), but it is not boasting that causes his downfall.]

A secondary consequence of the story, is that it turned the night sky from this:

into a veritable treasure troves of stories:

The _Map of the Heavens_, by Giovanni Antonio da Varese (1575).

Figure 3.34: The Map of the Heavens, by Giovanni Antonio da Varese (1575).

“We have always had a drive to paint stories onto the Universe. When humans first looked at stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. Humans think in stories.” [51]

In modern days, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognizes 88 constellations (distorted due to the projection of the celestial vault on a flat surface):

Modern constellations, according to the IAU [@visualcinnamon].

Figure 4.1: Modern constellations, according to the IAU [52].

The section of the night sky that “corresponds” to the tale presented above is highlighted below:30

Modern constellations, according to the IAU [@visualcinnamon].

Figure 4.2: Modern constellations, according to the IAU [52].

with a close-up:

Cassiopeia's night sky neighbourhood [Ontario Parks].

Figure 3.35: Cassiopeia’s night sky neighbourhood [Ontario Parks].

As the Earth turns on its axis, Cassiopeia indeed spends half the time “upside down”: a fitting punishment for a tragically flawed character.

So What is a Story?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer – we are not even certain that we are completely in agreement amongst ourselves. To paraphrase U.S. judge Potter Stewart: “We may not be able to define what a story is, but we know one when we see one”.31

  1. According to [54], a story could be defined as the (re-)telling32 of a temporal sequence of “events”, either true or fictional. A story is “told” so that the audience experiences or learns something from it; it is a means of transferring information, experiences, attitudes, or points of view. In this general sense, stories characterized by their use: they explain, describe, argue, persuade, teach, entertain, and so on.

  2. Another popular approach is to think of stories as memes (in the Dawkinsian sense), which is to say that they spread by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carry symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme. Memes act as carrying unit for cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, and are transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, and so on. They are the cultural analogues of biological genes: they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures [55].33

  3. Finally, we will provide a simple, pragmatic definition: a story consists of events (sequential or not) presented in some context (the story’s premise), and out which arise an outcome, result, consequence, or resolution.

Under each of these definitions, the myth of Cassiopeia is indeed a story (do you agree?), whereas neither a grocery list nor a phone directory would qualify. But what about the following?

Some of you may remember this chart making the rounds at the start of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic (during the spring 2020); the expression “flatten the curve” became memetic at about the same time. The message is clear: in a pandemic (context), measures that slow the spread of a virus (event 1) are recommended as they spread the cases over longer time horizons (consequence 1), resulting in a health care system that is not overrun (outcome 1); failure to adopt such measures (event 2) leads to an increase of cases over shorter time horizons (consequence 2), resulting in a healthcare system reaching critical capacity (outcome 2). Note, however, that this is not (necessarily) a story about reducing the number of cases, although it could have become one if adopting measures to slow the spread of the virus also leads to a reduction in the total number of cases.

This story was borne out, in practice [58], [59]. Unfortunately, a meme is no substitute for a comprehensive healthcare strategy, no matter how successful it was: in the U.S., flattening the curve worked as intended at first, but as there was no national plan (some would say, no story) for what would come after, the virus spread soon overcame the initial story [60]. Incidentally, that failure can also be conveyed as a story:

The eventual failure of the U.S. to move beyond 'flatten the curve' [@Vox3].

Figure 4.3: The eventual failure of the U.S. to move beyond ‘flatten the curve’ [60].

To be fair (and all U.S.-directed snark aside), this is part of a more general problem that humans have with stories, perhaps best exemplified by the concept of the lie-to-children:

“A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with a lie. The early stages of education have to include a lot of lies-to-children, because early explanations have to be simple. However, we live in a complex world, and lies-to-children must eventually be replaced by more complex stories if they are not to become delayed-action genuine lies.” [51]

Simply put, we are very simple creatures living in a very complicated world: we may attempt to explain the Universe with “lies-to-children”, but that does not mean that the Universe ultimately has to comply with our stories.

A schematic diagram of systems thinking as it applies to a general problem: as we move from the concrete world (left; details) to abstractions (right, rigour), our understanding gets 'storified' [@DUDADS].

Figure 4.4: A schematic diagram of systems thinking as it applies to a general problem: as we move from the concrete world (left; details) to abstractions (right, rigour), our understanding gets ‘storified’ [61].

Abstraction (lies-to-children) require choices; these choices are informed by the storytelling context and the storytellers – we will revisit this in Elements of Storytelling.

From which domains of human endeavour are stories most likely to arise? Peter Dodds, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and the director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center, provides the following list [62]:

  • news

  • books, magazines

  • art and music industry

  • television, movie studios, Netflix, HBO, Disney+, etc.

  • social media: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

  • sports and video games

  • evidence: data, science experiments, etc.

  • religions, ideologies, belief systems, etc.

  • enduring coherent groups: cultures, countries, cities, etc.

  • commerce: adverts

“The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). […] In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.” [53]

Humans are awash in stories – it takes a fair amount of effort to avoid stories.

And What is Not a Story?

For grocery lists, the classification is straightforward;34 but in general, there could be complications. Is a theorem a story? A newspaper heading? A joke? A chart?

One distinction that is sometimes made is that between a story and its plot. A story’s plot is the essential sequence of its elements, the skeleton of the story: the blurb presented at the start of this module is Finding Nemo’s plot. The plot typically resides in logical space (if this happens, then that will happen, and so this final thing will also happen), whereas the story live in sequential space (a number of related events are presented sequentially, although they could be shown out of order) [まとりょーしか]:

We are of two minds about that: reading this overview of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga35 is emphatically not the same thing as getting the full story from the 23 movies (and assorted TV shows, one-offs, and comic books), but … well, it still provides something that is story-adjacent to it. While stories are more than just their plots36, maybe plots can still function as bare stories.

Sometimes, narratives have the trappings of stories without actually being stories. Consider, for instance, the following text:

“There once was a fish named Marlin, who loved his son Nemo more than anything. Every day he tried to protect Nemo from the ocean, which he feared. When he died, his father looked into the vast, terrible sea and he could not find him. Then a great monster, the Devilfish, saw Marlin’s mourning face and he cackled,”You’re mine!” Suddenly, the devilfish attacked Marlin, dragging him to his death, and Marlin has never looked back.”

This reads, looks, and feels like a story, but we do not think it a story, at least, not a one with memetic power.

Consider instead the following tale, titled 30 Years,37:

“A fellow went to a Zen master and said,”If I work very hard, how soon can I be enlightened?” The Zen master looked him up and down and said, “Ten years.” The fellow said, “No, listen, I mean if I really work at it, how long –” The Zen master cut him off. “I’m sorry. I misjudged. Twenty years.” “Wait!” said the young man, “You don’t understand! I’m –” “Thirty years,” said the Zen master.”

It is clearly memetic, having been passed along among certain modern adepts of Zen Buddhism (ultimately finding its way in these pages); while it appears Zen koan-like to non-expert eyes, we wonder if it is not simply a joke. Jokes can be stories, of course, and a story’s meaning is not always apparent (or in the case of Zen koans, even a requisite quality), but this one seems too vague to qualify as a story in our books. What do you think?

What about La Munkya, the absurdly adorable “Written by a Kid” video featuring a paper panty-clad horse, a jailbreak, and turtles?

Written by a Kid | Episode 3 | [La Munkya](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_UWRUacIuk) | by Emily

Figure 4.5: Written by a Kid | Episode 3 | La Munkya | by Emily

Although La Munkya does not qualify as story in our view, Emily is a superb storyteller: she almost carries the meandering narrative to the promised land on the strength of her confident voice and commanding presence alone.

Recently, data stories have become common place: here is a Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards winner for 2019.

Concept: David McCandless, Duncan Geere, Hazel Healy; Research: Duncan Geere; Additional design: Fabio Bergamaschi [@iob]

Figure 4.6: Concept: David McCandless, Duncan Geere, Hazel Healy; Research: Duncan Geere; Additional design: Fabio Bergamaschi [63]

While the subject matter is of global significance38 and tons of useful information is available on the chart, this is also not quite what we have in mind when we think of (data) stories; to our minds, this meaningful visualization lands squarely into infographic and data art territories.

Adjacent Narratives

Peter Dodds [62] also reminds us that real stories are never told in their entirety: it is impossible to record every detail of an ideal (Platonic) story, as recording entails compression to medium format and scale (narrative hierarchy). Storytelling converges to the story logic, while seemingly irrelevant aspects (which remain part of the story) are discarded in favour of aspects which are likely to carry more weight with the audience.

These adjacent stories (of which there can be infinitely many, at least in theory) afford “better” stories, which is to say, stories that are:

  • more engaging;

  • more motivating to spread (more memetic), and

  • more durable (robust) under spreading.

These “better” stories are used by “true-to-life” recorders and re-tellers (such as journalists) to reach larger audiences, but the infinitude of adjacent stories also means that “better” stories are used for disinformation: adjacent stories may be low on truth and bear falsehoods. When adjacent stories conform to a groups’ world view and ideology, they tend to spread like wildfire (or more accurately, like a virus); this is not surprising, since even non-adjacent stories must be coherent and at least possible.39

Example (also from [62]): the Phantom Time Hypothesis, by German pseudohistorian Heribert Illig, illustrates the seductive power of adjacent stories. The long and the short of it is that the the years AD (CE) 614-911 never existed, and so that the year AD (CE) 2022 should really be labeled AD (CE) 1825. Supposedly, a 1st millenium cabal consisting of “the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, Pope Sylvester II (and possibly the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII) fabricated the Anno Domini dating system retroactively, in order to place themselves at the special year of AD 1000, and to rewrite history to legitimize Otto’s claim to the Holy Roman Empire.”

It is a powerful story, and it concords with some of our prejudices: we think that most of us could easily conceive of a Holy Roman Emperor, a Byzantine emperor (possibly), and a Pope thirsting for power, and scheming behind the scenes to find ways to stay in power as long as they live; it even touches on our love of numerology!

Illig also brings forward evidence to support his claim (in case the story itself should prove insufficient to persuade a world determined to stay in the dark!); the nature of the evidence is such that it is easily refuted by records of solar eclipses and comet appearances over the years, as well as dendrochronology (the study of tree rings). By proposing an alternative to “establishment” history (the null hypothesis), phantom time hypothesists hold the burden of proof: if their evidence does not support their claim, it should at the very least not support the chronology they are trying to overthrow.

Data Stories

In [64], Catherine Cote describes data storytelling as the ability to effectively communicate insights from a dataset using narratives and visualizations. It can be used to put data insights into context for, and inspire action from, your audience.

There are 3 key components:

  • the data (and why it is analyzed) is the foundation of the data story;

  • the narrative is the storyline that helps to communicate the insights gleaned from data and context, as well as any the actions these recommend, and

  • the visuals are the representations of the data and analysis results, as well as their associated narratives, which communicate the stories clearly and memorably, through the use of charts, graphs, diagrams, pictures, or videos.

Data analysis can (roughly) be broken down into four key modes, informed by the analysis and storytelling objectives, which move roughly from low value/low difficulty propositions (left) to high value/high difficulty propositions (right).

Analysis/data science buckets [Marwan Kashef, datascience2go].

Figure 4.7: Analysis/data science buckets [Marwan Kashef, datascience2go].

The chart of figure 4.8, selected from [65] shows what is, in our opinion, a brilliant data story; can you determine the data, the context, the narrative, and the visuals in the chart below:

Chart produced by Ritchie King, describing the results found in [@29teams].

Figure 4.8: Chart produced by Ritchie King, describing the results found in [66].

So what is the story? In the words of the author,

“The variability in results wasn’t due to fraud or sloppy work. These were highly competent analysts who were motivated to find the truth, said Eric Luis Uhlmann, a psychologist at the Insead business school in Singapore and one of the project leaders. Even the most skilled researchers must make subjective choices that have a huge impact on the result they find.
But these disparate results don’t mean that studies can’t inch us toward truth. ‘On the one hand, our study shows that results are heavily reliant on analytic choices,’ Uhlmann told me. ‘On the other hand, it also suggests there’s a there there. It’s hard to look at that data and say there’s no bias against dark-skinned players.’ Similarly, most of the permutations you could test in the study of politics and the economy produced, at best, only weak effects, which suggests that if there’s a relationship between the number of Democrats or Republicans in office and the economy, it’s not a strong one.
The important lesson here is that a single analysis is not sufficient to find a definitive answer. Every result is a temporary truth, one that’s subject to change when someone else comes along to build, test and analyze anew.” ([65], reporting on the results of [66])

The always excellent Visual Cinnamon (Nadieh Bremer) provides us with another example of a data story:

Or is it? The visuals are clear: this is a scatter plot, and the dots appear to represent stars. But what is the context? The underlying data? Is there a narrative? In fact, this does not seem to be a good data story, let alone a data story at all.

We must come clean (and beg forgiveness from Ms. Bremer): this is not the data story published by Visual Cinnamon. Instead, we pared down the original story to its naked visuals – a simple chart – in order to make it clear that a data visualization alone may not necessarily tell a story. Contrast with the actual data story, for which the context, data, and narrative are readily apparent [52]:

As you can see by comparing both charts, a little bit of text (and context) goes a long way!

The Risks of Storytelling

The Impact of Storytelling Choices

A good story can help shed insights on a situation, but it is important to remember that storytelling requires choices (as does data analysis, see the chart from [66], above), and the outcome and impact of a story are affected by what is included in the telling and what is omitted.

Stories That Mislead

It is surprisingly easy to mislead by accident, but it is also quite easy to mislead by design. Whether one is faced with one or the other of (or potentially both) these situations is often difficult to ascertain. Consider this headline from a CNN article published on May 4, 2021:

“France kept classrooms open ‘at all costs.’ At a school where 20 pupils lost loved ones, some say the price was too high.” [67]

Without additional context or details, what conclusions would you draw from this? It is open to interpretation, of course, but our first reading of the headline is that a link exists between the school staying open and the death of the loved ones.

Except that the article states:

“In all, at least 20 students from her high school, Eugene Delacroix, in nearby Drancy, lost a relative to the virus in 2020, according to the town hall. Nothing suggests these deaths were caused by infections at the school.” [67]

This passage contradicts our earlier reading; the headline (a story in its own right?) could be seen as misleading. C. Douglas Golden, an American writer for the far-right The Western Journal40 suggests, rather unsurprisingly, that the misleading is deliberate and should be expected given the “propagandistic nature of the piece” [69] (and, although he does not come out and state it explicitly, of CNN and “mainstream” media, by extension).

This is emphatically not how we interpret the disconnect between the headline and the text of the article: in the tradition of Occam’s razor,41 it seems much more plausible that this disconnect could simply be explained by the headline and the article writers being two distinct people, and signals getting crossed, than it is due to some all-encompassing attempt by liberals (in the U.S. sense) to control the narrative of the “mainstream” media.42

So which is it? By design, or by accident? Is it even misleading at all?

Survivorship Bias

With data stories, there is an added complication: we usually only have access to the available data. The data that was not collected is, by definition, not available. Even the data that was collected may be partly available to analysts and storytellers, for a variety of reasons (such as inadequate security clearances, data governance restrictions, etc.). This creates implicit bias in the data, which can lead to compelling yet fundamentally flawed data stories.

The following example has become a bit of a cliché among practitioners of data visualization, but it perfectly illustrates the risks associated with this survivorship bias [70]. During the Second World War, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, undertook a study on behalf of the U.S. Air Force, to help protect Allied bombers who were flying missions over occupied and enemy territory in Europe and in the Pacific. The collected study data consisted of the number and location of bullet holes on returning aircraft; the goal was to use this information to determine where to add armor plating in order to save the lives of crew members and best protect the plane’s structure (which would then be available for other sorties).

A chart was created (the aforementioned cliché) to show the uneven distribution of bullet hole locations, which were actually “concentrated on the wings and fuselage, almost twice as much as places like the engines [70].” The prevailing wisdom of the military was to add armor to these more prevalent locations, as these were the ones that were drawing fire.

Obligatory hypothetical representation of Axies bullets on returning Allied bombers [Grandjean, McGeddon, Cameron Moll].

Figure 4.9: Obligatory hypothetical representation of Axies bullets on returning Allied bombers [Grandjean, McGeddon, Cameron Moll].

Wald realized that this strategy could only make sense if Axis pilots were somehow able to direct gunfire to desired locations on Allied planes, a skill which Allied pilots with WWII-era technology decidedly did not possess. The crucial insight was that Axis gunfire was almost certainly uniformly distributed (e.g., every location on a bomber was as likely to get hit by bullets as any other), and that the available data only concerned returning aircraft. Counter-intuitively, armor should be added to the areas with the fewest holes: if no returning bomber had holes in their wing spars and in the engines, then even a few bullets hitting those locations is deadly.

The take-away from all this is that the missing data may be as important to story than the data that is available; data storytelling is not an obvious endeavour.

May the Best Story/Storyteller Win

Being “too good” at storytelling might seem like a strange addition to a list of storytelling risks, but it can play out not unlike data analysis’ Tyranny of Past Success [61]; Tetlock and Gardner give us a vivid example:

“Open any newspaper, watch any TV news show, and you find experts who forecast what’s coming. Some are cautious. Most are bold and confident. A handful claim to be Olympian visionaries able to see decades into the future. With few exceptions, they are not in front the camera because they possess any skill at forecasting.
Accuracy is seldom even mentioned. […] The one undeniable talent that talking heads have is their skill at telling a compelling story with conviction, and that is enough. Many have become wealthy peddling forecasting of untested value to corporate executives, government officials and ordinary people who would never think of swallowing medicine of unknown efficacy and safety but who routinely pay for forecasts that are as dubious as elixirs sold from the back of a wagon.” [71]

Having a good story is no guarantee that the story is true or useful, or that it supports and/or agrees with the data and the analysis [72].

Consider the following data story, which large swaths of the anti-vaccine population has found extremely compelling:

An anti-vaccine argument against COVID-19 vaccines.

Figure 4.10: An anti-vaccine argument against COVID-19 vaccines.

At face value, this data story would seem to sound the death knell for COVID-19 vaccination: assuming the underlying data is valid, who would get the vaccine knowing that they are more likely to get the disease? But, as was the case with the Wald example (survivorship bias), this data story is fundamentally flawed: it considers the hospitalization rates in the general population without taking into account the vaccination rates. The additional data actually reverses the story:

The full data argument in favour of COVID-19 vaccines [MarkRummy].

Figure 4.11: The full data argument in favour of COVID-19 vaccines [MarkRummy].

This makes it clear that the high number of hospitalization cases among the vaccinated is due to the preponderance of vaccinated individuals in the population: in fact, the hospitalization rate is much higher among the non-vaccinated population (again, depending on the actual underlying numbers).

The Story Trap

Finally, we must remember that we have evolved with the help of stories; they are part and parcel of the human experience; we naturally prefer explanations that are packaged as human (or human-digestible) stories. Is it possible that the “lies-to-children” approach [53] is holding us back? Is it time to shed the story trap?

“We might wonder if the ultimate intelligibility of the universe will be determined not so much by the capacity of our minds to formulate the appropriate concepts and equations, but by whether we can find a meaningful story to tell about it.” [73]

Stories are powerful, but they cannot be all things to all people, in all circumstances. Remain aware of their limitations, however, and their learning/teaching potential increases.

Storytelling Roles and Functions

“Humans love humans! They can’t get enough of themselves. They crave the company of humans, they value the opinions of humans, and they love hearing stories about humans!” [35]

We keep this final section purposely short, as we will be revisiting its key ideas over and over again in the text. We use stories of all kinds for persuasion, education, entertainment, etc. For these goals to be achieved, our stories have to remain simple and they have to be about other humans: individuals, organizations, societies, cultures, etc.

4.1.2 Elements of Storytelling

In this section, we take a closer look at what makes a story …. well, a story.


The storytelling goals are intertwined with the type of story that is being told. Cultural Stories are stories whose goal(s) may be to:

  • entertain an audience (Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, The Eternals, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, etc.);

  • inform and call to action (For Sama, An Inconvenient Truth, Kony 2012, Shi-shi-etko, etc.);

  • teach children and adults alike (The Paper Bag Princess, The Three Little Pigs, Attarnajuat: The Fast Runner, Making Comics, etc.);

  • explore and experiment in an artistic space (Un chien Andalou, Eunoia, The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, La disparition, etc.);

  • evoke an emotional response, such as shock or horror (Friday the 13th, Sarah McLachlan’s SPCA, Sandman, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, etc.).

Stories may have more than one objective: is it possible to call to action without also evoking an emotional response, for instance? It would not be out of place to see some of these examples appear in two or more categories, or even some entirely new category (sell, convert, etc.).

Data (scientific) stories are somewhat more restricted in their goals: typically, we seek to:

  • describe what has happened (The Big Bang, )

  • diagnose why something happened (Smoking Causes Cancer, etc.);

  • predict what will happen next (Global Warming, etc.);

  • prescribe what should happen (Wald’s Bomber, etc.);

  • persuade an audience to change their minds or to adopt a policy (Flatten the Curve!, etc.)

The comment regarding overlaps and missing categories also applies to such stories.


Storytelling requires a teller and a story, obviously, but also an audience; while it might still be expected for authors to claim that they only write for themselves, say, without an audience (if only an idealized, generic audience), a story is just a sequence of words and images [74].

The story’s first and foremost responsibility is to not come in the way of the teller’s job, which is to convince the audience to accept:

  • the premise (“I’m about to tell you a really interesting story, so listen up!”);

  • the contents (“Here’s what happened. Honest!”)

  • the conclusion (“And that’s why you should never wash your laundry with peanut butter.”)

It is not too difficult to see how two storytellers telling nominally the same story could end up telling two vastly different stories, in terms of audience buy-in and reaction.

That audience is a nebulous entity to define. In many cases, the teller never interacts directly with the audience: for all that we know, the audience for this book (not exactly a story, but play along) could be a single child, or the entire nation of Finland. This ambiguity typically leads beginning storytellers to imagine the largest possible audience: their story will be one for the ages, stand the test of time, and lead to the adulation of the entire planet (and possibly beyond!).

This is a common mistake: in storytelling (as with data analysis), less is more. But in order not to miss the mark when we strip the fat away and converge on a lean story, it pays to know the audience.

For the most part there are only two kinds of audiences for stories: individuals and organizations. What can we expect from them? If individuals engage with the story of their own free will, we should at the very least assume that they are willing to suspend their disbelief, that is to say, that they are willing to entertain the specific teller and the idea of the story.

The opinion of a few influencers might inform the opinions of larger audience sub-groups: humans being social animals, this should hardly come as a surprise (although there have been a number of controversies over the years, such as the FTC/YouTube influencer scandal [75], the Payola scandal of the 1950s [76], or the absolutely baffling Gamergate [77], if taken at face value).

Importantly, if it is an organization that engages with the story, we can no longer assume that the audience is participating on its own volition, and that makes the storyteller’s tasks more difficult to achieve. Especially when it comes to data stories; in our experience as quantitative consultants over a 15+ year period, a surprisingly large proportion of hierarchical structures accross all sectors is reticent to use of data (and data stories) in their strategic and service activities, even for organizations that could seriously be deemed “data young”.43 Mind you, being data positive is no guarantee that data stories will be well received: organizations tend to remain data friendly only as long as the data story supports the (at times, implicit and hidden) narrative that permeates all their levels.

It is the rare individual audience who can change their mind when presented with new evidence; for organizations, that requires a nearly superhuman (and rarely forthcoming) effort.

Context and Universality

Stories travel; they may reach unexpected (and untargeted) audiences. Even the most homogeneous audiences exhibit some degree of heterogeneity (individuals, competing factions, etc.). A particular action or event may be viewed positively or negatively by audiences (or audience members) with differing contexts (i.e., pre-existing feelings/knowledge concerning the situations and the agents they involve):

  • would you be able to recognize nobility in a political enemy’s actions?

  • could a fan of the Maple Leafs/Habs ever have something worthy to say about hockey?44

The same story may thus have different outcomes/impacts in different contexts. Consider, for instance, Trevor Greenway’s article Wakefield nurse fires up Freedom Convoy published in The Low Down to Hull and Back on Feb 9, 2022.45

Based only on the headline, the photo, and the accompanying blurb, what is your opinion on the subject (the nurse)? The author? Read the article: have your opinions changed?

This was one of the Low Down’s most “controversial” articles ever. Some calls and letters to the Editor excoriated the newspaper for painting an “anti-vaxxer” in a sympathetic light, others for ridiculing a hard-working and honest citizens.

It is one and only one story for Mr. Greenway and the Low Down: it was only written (and published) once, for all the world to see. But it was not the same story for different audiences. Context matters.

“To some, this might smack of post-modernism:”you are saying that there is no truth, and that data analysis is pointless!” To which our response is: “analysts have agency (lots of it, as it turns out), and their choices DO influence the results… so run multiple analyses to determine the variability of the outcomes”. That is simply the nature of the discipline.” [61]

The same goes for stories and data stories: multiplicity helps get a better idea of exactly what is going on (definitely in the preparation stage, at least!).

As an illustration, let us re-visit the constellation example of Figure 4.1. You will not be surprised to find out that different culture had different night skies: of course, the skies themselves were the same (give or take a few stars based on a culture’s location on Earth), but they were definitely viewed differently, based on the various myths.

Traditional constellations: Chinese (top row); Korean (second row); Navajo (only a subset, third row), and Maori (bottom row) [@visualcinnamon].Traditional constellations: Chinese (top row); Korean (second row); Navajo (only a subset, third row), and Maori (bottom row) [@visualcinnamon].Traditional constellations: Chinese (top row); Korean (second row); Navajo (only a subset, third row), and Maori (bottom row) [@visualcinnamon].Traditional constellations: Chinese (top row); Korean (second row); Navajo (only a subset, third row), and Maori (bottom row) [@visualcinnamon].

Figure 4.12: Traditional constellations: Chinese (top row); Korean (second row); Navajo (only a subset, third row), and Maori (bottom row) [52].

There are marked differences:

  • Chinese constellations are much more numerous (and so smaller) than the modern IAU constellations;

  • there are very few southern Korean constellations (presumably due to the northern location of Korea);

  • the Navajo constellations that are presented are more easily recognizable as human figures than they are in the other systems;

  • the Maori constellations are nautically themed (fishing hook, etc.).

Upon reflection it is not too surprising that all these cultures had different constellations, and that all of them are as “true” as one another, but it is somewhat surprising that all cultures have constellations… Might this be the actual story?

This is an unspoken challenge of storytelling – the audience may fail to agree that the story is what the author think it is: the “author is dead” [78] (at least, up to a point). Stories are universally appealing to humans, but their interpretations are no universal.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Consider the old Aesop fable:

The Boy Who Cried Wolf
There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself he took a great breath and sang out, “Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!”
The villagers came running up the hill to help the boy drive the wolf away. But when they arrived at the top of the hill, they found no wolf. The boy laughed at the sight of their angry faces. “Don’t cry ‘wolf’, shepherd boy,” said the villagers, “when there’s no wolf!” They went grumbling back down the hill.  
Later, the boy sang out again, “Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is chasing the sheep!” To his naughty delight, he watched the villagers run up the hill to help him drive the wolf away.
When the villagers saw no wolf they sternly said, “Save your frightened song for when there is really something wrong! Don’t cry ‘wolf’ when there is NO wolf!”
But the boy just grinned and watched them go grumbling down the hill once more.
Later, he saw a REAL wolf prowling about his flock. Alarmed, he leaped to his feet and sang out as loudly as he could, “Wolf! Wolf!” But the villagers thought he was trying to fool them again, and so they didn’t come.
At sunset, everyone wondered why the shepherd boy hadn’t returned to the village with their sheep. They went up the hill to find the boy. They found him weeping.
“There really was a wolf here! The flock has scattered! I cried out,”Wolf!” Why didn’t you come?”
An old man tried to comfort the boy as they walked back to the village. “We’ll help you look for the lost sheep in the morning,” he said, putting his arm around the youth, “[…]”

What does the old man say to comfort the young boy? What is the moral of the story? Even if this specific one is unknown to you, a lifetime of experience with similar tales makes it clear that the missing words are something to the effect of: “Nobody believes a liar, even when they are telling the truth.”

The interpretation is that we build trust by being trustworthy and straightforward, by demonstrably telling the truth in our dealings with others. The good functioning of human society hinges on this interpretation; it is almost certainly the one you were taught as a child.

But there is (at least) another, more sinister (if not downright sociopathic) interpretation: if in truth you are a liar, then it is crucial to keep that fact hidden from everybody. In that interpretation, the boy was foolish for repeatedly using the same lie, because that clearly marked him as a liar in the eyes of the villagers (and hence as someone who could not be trusted).46

Thankfully (in this case, at least), it takes a fair amount of effort to overcome the cultural momentum generated by fables and cautionary tales in general, which makes the second interpretation seem off-kilter (and thus wrong) to us: we have heard too many stories over the years to be fooled.

But data stories are a different matter: for the most part, they have not yet penetrated human “extelligence”.47 Additionally, whereas the vast majority of us are story-literate (according to the standards of our respective cultures and sub-cultures), we cannot claim to be a data-literate species yet. In practical terms, this means that the “right” interpretation of a data story often escapes us if it is not explicitly presented as such.

Take a look at the following (facetious) chart:

What is the “moral” of the accompanying data story? Is it that increased eggplant consumption is linked to increased cancer incidence, or that is linked to diminishing mortality rates? Is the chart telling us to eat more eggplant, or to cut down on eggplant consumption?48

4.1.3 Form and Structure

We have mentioned that most humans are story-literate, which is to say, that they know and understand the storytelling rules and conventions of the various sub-cultures to which they belong (this section’s material is heavily influenced by the excellent tvropes.com [80]; we will link to tropes as they occur, but you should be aware that tvtropes.com is a considered a rabbit hole par excellence… once you enter the site, you might not emerge for a few hours).

Storytelling Tropes

In storytelling, a trope is a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly, without the authors having to go into detailed descriptions. It is, in other words, a storytelling convention, a contract between the audience and the teller.

Tropes can cover a variety of storytelling concepts, such as:

  • plot tricks;

  • setups;

  • narrative structures;

  • character types;

  • linguistic idioms, etc.

The most commonly-used tropes tend to become clichés: elements that are expected to be part of any story in a given genre. The word “cliché” has a negative connotation; works that rely too heavily on them tend to be described as “lazy”, “tired”, “derivative”, “old-fashioned”, and so on. Although, as with everything, no story ever gets a 0% Approval Rating; as Neal Gabler reminds us,

“One does not necessarily have to cluck in disapproval to admit that entertainment is all the things its detractors say it is: fun, effortless, sensational, mindless, formulaic, predictable and subversive. In fact, one might argue that those are the very reasons so many people love it.” [81]

Tropes are usually neither intrinsically good nor bad; they are simply storytelling units, building blocks, and/or patterns,49 not solely within the works themselves, but also behind-the-scenes, when it comes to the:

  • aspects of creation;

  • technical features of a medium, and

  • audience experience and expectations.

The entire process of creating and telling/showing a story has to be integrated in order for stories to work. None of this is new: we have been identifying and discussing patterns in media for centuries. Aristotle wrote the Poetics (c. 335 BCE), in which he studied tragic plays and epics, making him the first “troper” of whom we have knowledge. He first diagnosed many of the tropes still in use, some of which can be found below:

There are upwards of a few hundred tropes on record; user SonicLover has organized some of them into a Periodic Table of Storytelling:

It works “more or less” like the Periodic Table of the Elements: tropes belong to families, and they can be combined to form simple storytelling molecules:

Simple story molecules, again from _SonicLover_.

Figure 4.13: Simple story molecules, again from SonicLover.

For instance:

We have never played Mass Effect, so we do not know how accurate its story molecule is, but apparently it’s The Hero Saving the World from an Eldritch Abomination Omnicidal Maniac; and Avatar the Last Airbender is apparently about a 5 Man Band and The Chosen One who band together with an Anti-Villain Determinator on a Redemption Quest (after experiencing a Heel-Face Turn) to Save the World from The Empire.

Obviously, stories are much more than their synopsis, but our experience with stories is extensive enough for us to get the gist through the molecules.

Playing With Tropes: The Wicked Stepmother

Tropes are most useful when they are played with by the storytellers. Since the conventions are known and understood by the audience, any departure from a trope can be used to convey special information. In data stories, this often takes the form of looking for what is missing or what differs from expectations (see our discussion on the Gestalt Principles in The Mechanics of Visual Perception).

Playing with tropes [_SonicLover_].

Figure 4.14: Playing with tropes [SonicLover].

The Wicked Stepmother is one of the most familiar (and oldest) tropes in fairy tales and folklore. The defining characteristic of the wicked stepmother is that she is hostile to her stepchildren; but for the trope to real take effect, her spouse has to be out of the way (dead, away, deadbeat, etc.) or fail to intervene on behalf of the children (and possibly be blind to the hostility in the first place). The stereotypical example in Western fiction is probably the one found in Cinderella.

Here are some ways in which this trope can be played with.

  • Played Straight: the stepmother is hostile to her stepson, which is not taken as a given in the world of the story.

  • Justified: the stepmother is hostile to her stepdaughter, but that is because the stepdaughter is bullying the stepmother’s son.

  • Inverted: every adult but the stepmother is hotile to the stepchildren.

  • Backfired: the stepmother is hostile to her stepchildren, but she’s unaware that they love her.

  • Subverted: the stepmother is hostile to her stepchildren, but she is just hostile to anyone and everyone.

  • Double Subverted: everyone expects the stepmother to be hostile to her stepchildren, but she is perfectly nice to them … except that she is secretly working to make their lives miserable.

  • Parodied: in the story’s setting, young women are sent to a finishing school where they are taught finances, cleaning, cooking, and how to make a child life’s miserable (in case she ever becomes a stepmother).

  • Deconstructed: the stepmother was a friend of the mother since before her stepchildren were born, and there was never any conflict with anyone (including the mother before she passed away) – it would not make sense for the stepmother to suddenly become hostile to the stepchildren for no apparent reason.

  • Reconstructed: the stepmother was friendly to her stepchildren at first, but suddenly became hostile, and the rest of the story is about figuring out why the change happened.

  • Zig Zagged: the stepmother is hostile to her stepchildren, but she was under mind control at the time. And it later turns out that the mind controller was actually the stepmother’s evil twin sister, who is also a stepmother (but to different stepchildren). In the end, we find out that a conspiracy hatched by the stepmother and her evil twin sister, one born out of necessity because the stepchildren were in fact the scouts for an alien invasion force.

  • Averted: there is a stepmother, but she is friendly to her stepchildren.

  • Enforced: the writer hated his stepmother, so he decided paint his story’s stepmother as wicked.

  • Logical Extreme: in the story’s setting, all stepmothers are hostile to their stepchildren.

  • Other Variations on a Trope: the stepmother is hostile to her stepchildren, but she is not called a stepmother in the story because that role as we know it does not exist in that place or time, even though her role in the family structure is basically that of a stepmother.

  • Lampshaded: “So she’s a wicked stepmother! I always wanted to say that.”

  • Invoked: stepmothers are employed as guards in a high-security prison because of their experience being hostile to their stepchildren.

  • Exploited: the stepson purposely opens hotility with his soon-to-be stepmother, because the stepmother is always hostile to her stepchildren in the books he reads.

  • Discussed: “Unlike what you may have seen on TV shows, most stepmothers have at least a neutral relationship with their stepchildren.”

  • Implied, Exaggerated, Downplayed, Played for Laughs, Played for Drama, Played for Horror, Untwisted, Defied, Conversed, Parodied, etc.

Data Storytelling Tropes

What could data storytelling tropes look like? What are the visual elements, the conventions, the shortcuts, the set-ups that chart and dashboard creators can reasonably expect their audience to recognize?

We will revisit this at a later stage, but for now remember that tropes are neither bad, nor good. They are tools.

Narrative Structures

It is common for storytelling books to bring up narrative structure, and to give some common examples. It is not entirely obvious how these could apply to data stories, but talking about such structures has become a trope51, and we feel that the audience has come to expect it, so we will touch on the topic briefly.

Narrative structure is the order in which events are organized into a beginning, middle, and ending. A story’s structure directly affects the way the plot unfolds and how its driving forces (characters, obstacles, setting, etc.) are introduced.

Tightly controlled narrative structure results in all questions being answered, provides a climax followed by resolution and information at the end of the story, furthers the characters’ development, and unravels any central conflicts (humans prefer those).

Structure helps creators draw connections between “things that happen” and “things that matter.” For instance, a tale about two vastly different people falling in love can also be about the value of compromise. paraphrased from [82]

Traditionally, storytelling books then introduce specific narrative structures, give them a catchy name, and study them in some detail, bringing up examples from the medium of interest, sometimes illustrating them with charts, some of which we reproduce here:

Narrative structures [@blog1].

Figure 3.40: Narrative structures [82].

E. Coates claims that Pixar Studios uses a simple narrative structure in its wildly successful movies: the Pixar story spine. Roughly speaking, the movies follow this structure:

  1. Once upon a time, there was ___.

  2. Every day, ___.

  3. One day ___.

  4. Because of that, ___.

  5. Because of that, ___.

  6. Until finally ___.

The text we provided at the start of this module is a story spine for Finding Newmo:

“There once was a fish named Marlin, who loved his son Nemo more than anything. Every day he tried to protect Nemo from the ocean, which Merlin feared. One day Nemo decided his dad was wrong and he swam away. But he was captured by a diver. Because of that, Marlin had to leave the safety of his reef to find his son. And because of that, he learned to let go of his fears and trust that Nemo had what it takes to take care of himself. Ever since that day, Marlin gave Nemo the space to learn on his own.”

Notice that we used the indefinite a: there could be more than one story spine for a given work. Where, for instance, does Dory come into the spine? The sharks? Nemo’s friends in the dentist’s aquarium? Are these secondary characters (and associated details) necessary to the understanding of the narrative structure? Is the spine itself a story?

4.1.4 How to Tell a Story

“Human beings do not just tell stories, or just listen to them. […] (they) use the power of story to mould events according to (their) own wishes. […] Priests, politicians, scientists, teachers, and journalists have learned to use the power of story to get their messages across to the public, and to manipulate or persuade people to behave in particular ways. […]
The proper […] response to any new discovery or theory, especially your own, is to look for ways to disprove it. That is, to try to find a different story that explains the same things. […] Stories have power because we have minds, and we have minds because stories have power.” [53]

In this section, we briefly discuss:

  • where story ideas might come from;

  • what foundations a story should rest on;

  • what material gets integrated into a story;

  • issues related to story beginnings and endings, and

  • how to best share stories.

The material presented in this section is heavily indebted to [83]; more details are available there as well.

Mining for Content

Stories are born when storytellers decide to tell them, for persuasion, entertainment, and so on. But where do story ideas come from? From memories of events and situations, from other stories, from “thin air”, from decisions, from data and analysis. Where else could they come from? For data stories, obviously, the last of these takes certain stage, but in instances where the data analysis is meant to be prescriptive, decisions are also a big source of stories. Think of moments when conscious (data) decisions were made: what happened as a result? What might be the decision’s impact on you, your organization, your audience?

You may ask yourself what triggered the story/decision, what internal acts/events and factors outside of you control fed into the story; you may think of moments when things went wrong and they recovered, of the lessons learned along the way. Keep in mind that trauma, struggle, challenges, difficulties should define the story context, not the story itself; stories need to go beyond “a bad thing happened”, even when they are nominally about the bad thing happening.

Story Foundation

Storytellers should remember that audience buy-in depends, in a large part, on the stakes? Stakeholders will not turn to a data presentation solely because analysts have mastered the art of using bar charts, or to a report because it is well-written: there has to be a clear attempt at identifying what do people/organizations/countries/NHL teams/etc. stand to lose or to gain as a result of what they see in front of them. Stakes, in effect, tell audiences why they should care. The stakes do not have to be world-shattering at every step and turn, however; a story about an in-grown toenail might not be meaningful to very many people, but to a targeted audience of sufferers (a very small group, hopefully), the stakes may be high enough for them to adopt the story. Knowing your audience is, once again, crucial.

Is the purported story, at-best, an anecdote? Stories have messages and impact, anecdotes usually lack depth. They might very well be entertaining (and sometimes, that is all a storyteller is aiming for), but it is probably best for storytellers to only use them as a basis for their stories; they cannot carry the story on their own, so to speak.52

Impactful stories describe a journey of change. They have a clearly defined arc: how are things transformed or affected by decisions, policies, events, etc.? What were the challenges associated with the changes? How must things be done differently after the transformation? What are the consequences for various groups and stakeholders? Are the changes permanent? Can they be undone? Should they?

Storytellers (and the audience) should also have a sense of what the story is ultimately about. Surprisingly, that can be easier said than done; the ability to distill even the most sprawling of stories to a short paragraph of 1 or 2 sentences (e.g., a story spine) does wonders for the story’s focus and clarity, which is prized by audiences.

Finally, note that storytellers usually only tell/write/create one story from a given set of events/memories/data53 But it will be useful for them to know whether this was, in fact, the only story that could plausibly be told about the situation. Since this is rarely the case, having a sense for the story’s phase space cannot help but have a positive impact on presentation and delivery.

Story Materials

So what goes into the story? What important information is needed to build the story arc? This is easy to answer after the fact; prior to having built the story, however, it can help to create a bullet list of narrative stepping stones, some of which become scenes/chart elements, some summaries, and some discarded.

At every step of the story building process, the author should keep in mind what the story is building up to, how it will play out/resolve, and what role (if any) hindsight will play in the story’s telling: lessons will be learned, of course, but must they be relayed explicitly to the audience?

Storyteller often have “writer’s block” early on in the process, only to see it be replaced by an avalanche of ideas: this is just as difficult to navigate, the tendency being to want to use every great idea, thought, analysis result, etc. that arose in the brainstorming stage.

In storytelling, as in life in general, discretion is the better part of valour;54 the best recommendation we can offer beginning storyteller of all stripes is to avoid detail overload. Identify misleading and/or irrelevant tidbits and remove them from the final version; be on the lookout for too many dates, colours, characters, shapes, etc.

When in doubt, return to the distilled story and determine if the details support the story, if your audience has the required backstory to understand the message or if it needs to be weaved into the story, somehow. In other words, you need to determine if the story arc lands.

Being too close to the story can make it difficult to get a true, unbiased sense of how things are going; this is one of the many location where a tsarina of common sense could be a good addition to the storytelling process. Show and tell the story to someone you trust who has not been involved with preparing the story – she will tell you if the story lands, if you are making unwarranted assumptions about the audience and their background, and so on. Be prepared to return the favour, as well. Stories grow with feedback loops that include audience stand-ins; becoming a better storyteller helps other storytellers improve as well.

Beginnings and Endings

“We are ambivalent […] about beginnings – their ‘creation myth’ aspect appeals to our sense of narrative imperative, but we sometimes find the ‘first it wasn’t, then it was’ lie-to-children unpalatable. We have even more trouble with becomings. Our minds attach labels to things in the surrounding world, and we interpret those labels as discontinuities. If things have different labels, then we expect there to be a clean line of demarcation between them. The Universe, however, runs on processes rather than things, and a process starts as one thing and becomes another without ever crossing a clear boundary. Worst, if there is some apparent boundary, we are likely to point at it and shout ‘that’s it!’ just because we can’t see anything else worth getting agitated about.” [51]

In some sense, we understand story beginnings and endings as we understand of our own birth and death, which is to say that we have a tendency to think that nothing comes before, and nothing will come after: Après-moi, le déluge!.55 But this (entirely reasonable) self-centered view obscures a reality: stories never just begin or end at their earliest or latest chronological points. They are extensions and continuations of stories that have come before them, and they provide stepping stones for stories yet to come.

With this caveat in mind, it is important to select the beginning and closing points of a story carefully:

  • beginnings can be in media res, if necessary (you do not have to begin at the “start” if the story does not call for it), but it should be clear that the story has begun;

  • endings that leave the audience wondering ‘what was that about?’, or ‘is that it?’ are unsatisfying; endings that come to a definite stop are satisfying.

This is akin to waking up bright and early, and going to bed at a reasonable hour: making the right story endpoint choices will help keep the story focused.

Sharing the Story

At some point in the story preparation process, you will have enough of a story to start thinking about sharing it with the audience. That can be a scary though for a lot of us, no matter what kind of story we are telling or what kind of audience will receive it; practicing to “tell” the story is a necessity, even for non-novices.

The first attempts are usually long, convoluted, complicated; that’s normal! If the story is first shared with the tsarina of common sense, she can help decide if the story needs to be restructured, and how to do it:

  • are there redundancies to remove?

  • are there too many details, causing confusion?

  • are there too few details, leading to ambiguity?

  • is the message clear?

  • are there competing (contradictory?) interpretations/insights to be drawn from the story?

Sharing a story of course requires communication: anything that helps convey the message is in play. In practice, the choice of communication mode has an impact on the type of story that can be told; a data presentation to the deputy director of a government department is probably not the right medium for a humorous story, say. But the communication mode also has an impact on how stories are built and conveyed: a 3-minute elevator pitch will have to avoid charts.

In practice, stories are communicated:

  • orally (in person, conversation, play, radio, etc.)

  • with text (newspaper, books, tweets, etc.)

  • visually (graphic novels, infographics, posters, etc.)

  • with charts (dashboards, visualizations, etc.)

  • in combination (movies, memes, etc.)

Since the mode affects the style, type, building, and conveying of a story, it needs to be selected early on in the process; it may be too late (or costly) to change at a later stage.

How to Tell a Story

How we tell a story depends on a number of factors:

  • the subject matter

  • the audience (how much they know, how they are likely to receive the message, etc.)

  • the teller (personality, preferences, etc.)

  • format constraints (number of characters, number of pages, allotted time, etc.)

There are multiple tools available to storytellers: levity, seriousness, humour, terseness, flowery language, exaggerations, dramatic pauses, soundtracks, technologies, lists and \(n-\)steps plans, charts, dashboards, etc. With so many options, it is important to aim for coherence and consistency and to avoid creating a “word salad” (or the equivalent for data stories, or non-verbal stories).

Some storytelling formats have themselves become tropes (and in some instance, meta-stories):

  • infographics

  • tweets and other social media products

  • memes

  • TED Talks

  • The Moth

  • news report

  • rap battles, etc.

In our opinion, the following stories, while not necessarily perfect, are “told” well.

Robinah Babirye (This Is Just The Beginning)
Robinah Babirye | [This Is Just The Beginning](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvR1YekyteY) | _The Moth_ | (13:48)

Figure 3.41: Robinah Babirye | This Is Just The Beginning | The Moth | (13:48)

Hans Rosling (The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen)
Hans Rosling | [The Best Stats You've Ever Seen](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVimVzgtD6w) | _TED_ | (20:35)

Figure 3.42: Hans Rosling | The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen | TED | (20:35)

Yash Gupta (Bank Story)
Self-explanatory bank story, with annotations (Tableau) [@gupta].Self-explanatory bank story, with annotations (Tableau) [@gupta].Self-explanatory bank story, with annotations (Tableau) [@gupta].Self-explanatory bank story, with annotations (Tableau) [@gupta].

Figure 3.43: Self-explanatory bank story, with annotations (Tableau) [85].

Memes (Parenting)
Does this collection of 'memes' tell a story about parenting?

Figure 4.15: Does this collection of ‘memes’ tell a story about parenting?

We can even get a fair amount of meta-contextual information by studying story parodies (that is to stay, stories which reside at least “one level below” what they nominally present to the world), since we suspect that it is nearly impossible to construct a great parody without understanding the inner workings of the format being parodied.

This is That (Thought Leader, parody of TED Talks)
Pat Kelly | [Thought Leader](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZBKX-6Gz6A) | _This is That Talks_ | (04:15)

Figure 4.16: Pat Kelly | Thought Leader | This is That Talks | (04:15)

Newswipe (How to Report the News, Immigration Report; parodies of journalism)
Charlie Booker | [How to Report the News](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHun58mz3vI) | _Newswipe_ | (02:02)

Figure 4.17: Charlie Booker | How to Report the News | Newswipe | (02:02)

Emily Surname | [Immigration Report](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W90buvgQ-Mk) | _Election Wipe_ | (03:36)

Figure 4.18: Emily Surname | Immigration Report | Election Wipe | (03:36)

Zach Weinersmith and Ross Nover (parody of infographics)
Zach Weinersmith and Ross Nover at their best, once again [@smbc1].

Figure 4.19: Zach Weinersmith and Ross Nover at their best, once again [86].

How Not to Tell a Story

We would be remiss if we did not also make recommendations about certain commonly used tropes that should likely be avoided (although, that may be in the eye of the beholder):

  • Audience-Alienating Premise: some ideas are so foreign or alienating to an audience that any story that uses them is bound to fail, no matter how carefully the premise is presented; this again demonstrates the importance of knowing the audience;

  • Author Filibuster / Author Tract: some stories need to be told, even if they make the audience uncomfortable, but unless the audience lives in an echo chamber, “preachiness” is unlikely to win converts;56

  • Emphasize EVERYTHING: “you might find it hard to believe, but some writers actually use way too much emphasis in their descriptions! Using punctuation, formatting and endless superlatives, they exhaust you by endlessly insisting THAT EVERYTHING THEY TELL YOU IS TOTALLY EPIC!!;”57

  • Department of Redundancy Department: although a few repetitions here and there might help drive the point home, be careful not to overdo it (we will discuss this point again when we talk about data stories in more detail);

  • Viewers Are Geniuses: beginning storytellers tend to assume that audience members know and see the world the same way they do, that the tropes and shortcuts used by the teller will be understood by the audience; while they may very well be, it is better for the teller to assume that this is not the case, absent specific knowledge about the audience and/or input from the tsarina of common sense.

When all is said and done, the only thing that matters is getting the right message across. Everything that helps in that endeavour is allowable, everything that hinders that goal is not recommended.


S. McCloud, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. Harper, 2006.
I. Stewart, J. Cohen, and T. Pratchett, The Science of Discworld. Ebury Publishing, 2002.
I. Stewart, J. Cohen, and T. Pratchett, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe. Ebury Publishing, 2009.
M. W. Travis, What is a story, and where does it come from? The Wrap, 2011.
R. Dawkins, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
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D. Scott, Lockdowns worked. Now what? Vox, May 2020.
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J. Beckett, Statistician Abraham Wald’s counterintuitive insight saved lives,” War History Online, Jul. 2021.
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Y. Gupta, Dashboards and data story-telling explained! Medium, Oct. 2020.

  1. We are not talking about the movie itself, but rather the short description.↩︎

  2. Are there other ways to communicate? Other modes? Other tools?↩︎

  3. Here is another look at it, with constellation names: Author unknown↩︎

  4. Most of the time. We think. It is complicated: “A literate human being can look at a sequence of letters and spaces [and colours, sounds, lines, dots, etc.] and decide whether it constitutes a story; they know how to ‘read’ the code and work out its meaning, if it’s a language they understand. They can make a stab at deciding whether it’s a good story or not. However, we do not know how to transfer this ability to a computer. The rules that our minds use to decide whether what we’re reading is a story are implicit in the networks of nerve cells in our brains. Nobody has yet been able to make these rules explicit.” [53]↩︎

  5. Through word or other means, we are not particular.↩︎

  6. In popular culture, a meme (rhymes with ‘gene’) “is a virally transmitted image embellished with text, usually sharing pointed commentary on cultural symbols, social ideas, or current events. A meme is typically a photo or video, although sometimes it can be a block of text. When a meme resonates with many people, it’s spread via social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, texting, and more. The more a meme is spread, the greater the cultural influence it has.” [56] Memes are packed with in-knowledge, and may not be intelligible to members of different Internet sub-cultures. The mere mention of a specific meme is often enough to get a point, emotion, or mood across to a wide audience; consequently, memes are sometimes used in lieu of explicit and long-form communication, which adds to the generational divide. Such memes have a relatively short shelf life, however: how many now remember the Rage Guy meme or the context in which he first appeared in 2008?
    Rage Guy How long before the Coffin Dance meme fades out of our collective memory?
    Coffin Dance
    Osbert Lancaster, a British cartoonist active from just prior to the start of the Second World War to the early 1980s, once remarked that “a professional preoccupation with the topical is the surest passport to oblivion, and nothing […] dates so quickly as the apt comment.” [57] No doubt, this also applies to memes of all kinds.↩︎

  7. Or is it? Is the following grocery list only about the items? Grocery list.↩︎

  8. The Infinity Saga is the name given to the overarching storyline comprising of the original twenty-three films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the primary focus being around the Infinity Stones, a collection of six powerful objects, with each individually controlling a different aspect of the universe.
    The primary antagonist of the saga, the extraterrestrial warlord Thanos, who made it his goal to collect all the stones and use them to exterminate half of the universe’s inhabitants, believing that it would spare the universe from being destroyed by overpopulation. His primary opposition is the team of superheroes known as the Avengers.
    The earliest points of history explored in the MCU show that three of the stones, the Time, Reality and Space Stones, found their way to the Nine Realms. While the Time Stone fell into the possession of the Masters of the Mystic Arts, the latter two were procured by the Asgardians. They later hide the two stones away, with the Space Stone sent to Earth where it is eventually acquired during World War II by the Nazi science organization, HYDRA.
    Their efforts to use the Space Stone to further their own goals of conquering the world lead to Steve Rogers’ transformation into the super-soldier Captain America, and together with operatives of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) manages to defeat HYDRA’s leader and re-obtain the Space Stone.
    However, Rogers himself is lost and frozen in the Arctic for nearly seventy years. The SSR is later reformed as the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., unknowingly infiltrated by HYDRA. The agency continues to experiment with the Space Stone, and in the 1990s, rogue members of the Kree Empire come to Earth and try to use it to help save the Skrulls from the Kree’s genocidal war against them. The battle between the two races results in United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers being given superpowers by the Tesseract, and she wards the Kree away and leaves Earth to help the Skrulls relocate.
    The experience with Danvers and the extraterrestrials prompts S.H.I.E.L.D. into creating the Avengers Initiative, a global defense program designed to recruit superpowered individuals. In the present day, the Avengers comes to comprise of six members: Steve Rogers himself, who is rescued and revived by S.H.I.E.L.D.; billionaire inventor Tony Stark; scientist Bruce Banner; the Asgardian prince Thor; and prominent agents Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton.
    Together, the six of them form the original Avengers and have their first battle with Thanos’ forces when he sends an army of Chitauri under the command of Thor’s errant brother Loki to steal the Space Stone. The Avengers defeat Loki and the Chitauri in a grande battle in New York City, and the Space Stone is returned to Asgard. A year later, the Reality Stone reemerges when astrophysicist Jane Foster unwittingly stumbles upon it while studying the cosmic phenomenon known as the Convergence, leading to a series of altercations between Asgard and the Dark Elves, who seek to use the Reality Stone to wipe out the Nine Realms.
    Thor manages to single-handedly defeat the Dark Elves, and the Reality Stone is placed in the care of the Collector. Also during this time, various intergalactic parties working both for and against Thanos conflict over the Power Stone. A small cadre of alien outcasts, the Guardians of the Galaxy, manage to keep Thanos and his allies from obtaining the stone by fighting and killing his conspirators on Xandar, the capital world of the Nova Empire. S.H.I.E.L.D. is later destroyed when HYDRA’s infiltration is brought to light, and the Avengers are left to work against HYDRA independently.
    In their last battle against the terrorists, the Avengers come across the Mind Stone, which had been recovered earlier by Thanos but lost on Earth after Loki’s defeat. Experiments with the stone lead to the empowerment of twins Wanda Maximoff and Pietro Maximoff and the creation of two powerful androids, Ultron and the Vision. However, Ultron becomes megalomaniacal and attempts to wipe out the human race.
    The Avengers manage to stop him, but the destruction wrought by the conflict causes friction between them and the public. This dissension escalates with the creation of the Sokovia Accords, a set of documents meant to regulate the Avengers’ activities. The Accords cause a schism in the Avengers, leading to multiple conflicts and the eventual disbandment of the team.
    The fracturing of the Avengers team coupled with the destruction of Asgard wrought on by the return of Thor’s sadistic older sister Hela leaves the many factions of the universe vulnerable when Thanos finally sets out to obtain the Infinity Stones himself. Xandar is obliterated when he takes the Power Stone, and he acquires the Space Stone from the survivors of Asgard’s fall.
    Thanos sends his children to Earth to find the Time and Mind Stones, then goes to Knowhere to take the Reality Stone from the Collector and captures Gamora, knowing she found the Soul Stone on Vormir, where it is kept by Red Skull, who wound up there after touching the Space Stone. Tearfully, Thanos sacrifices Gamora to obtain the Soul Stone and returns to his home planet of Titan expecting his children to have the Time and Mind Stones for him, only to face Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Mantis, and Nebula in a battle for the Time Stone, while another battle rages in Wakanda for the Mind Stone.
    The battle on Titan ends with Strange giving Thanos the Time Stone to save Stark’s life as Thanos’ army is defeated by the combined efforts of Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, War Machine, Bucky Barnes, Thor, Groot, Rocket Raccoon, Black Panther, and the Wakandan tribes. Although Scarlet Witch destroys Vision to prevent Thanos from getting the Mind Stone, Thanos uses the Time Stone to reverse Vision’s destruction and rips the Mind Stone from his head to complete his collection of all six stones.
    Thor tries to finish him off with Stormbreaker, but Thanos manages to snap his fingers and decimate half of all life in the universe. Victims of the Snap include Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Groot, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Mantis, Drax, Star-Lord, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, Hank Pym, Janet van Dyne, Hope van Dyne, and Barton’s family. Three weeks after the Snap, Stark and Nebula are brought to Earth by Captain Marvel and the remaining Avengers ambush Thanos on his new homeworld upon discovering that he used the stones again, only to learn that he destroyed the stones so his work could not be undone.
    Thor then cuts his head off, making the Avengers’ efforts to bring back their allies all for naught. Five years later, the Avengers attempt to get on with their lives when Scott Lang, having returned from the Quantum Realm, comes up with a plan to go back to various points in time and take the Infinity Stones before Thanos can collect them all.
    Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Ant-Man go back to 2012 New York to retrieve the Space, Mind and Time Stones. However, when Loki escapes with the Tesseract, Stark and Rogers go back to 1970s New Jersey to retrieve the Space Stone from the camp where Rogers was trained. Thor and Rocket go back to 2013 Asgard to retrieve the Reality Stone from Jane Foster and Thor has a heart-to-heart with his mother Frigga before leaving with Mjølnir.
    War Machine and Nebula go back to 2014 Morag to retrieve the Power Stone before Star-Lord, while Black Widow and Hawkeye head to Vormir to retrieve the Soul Stone. Black Widow sacrifices herself for the Soul Stone just as Thanos in that time becomes aware of the Avengers’ plan to undo the Snap and sends past Nebula to take her future self’s place and use the Quantum Realm to bring him and his army to 2023 just as Hulk uses the stones to reverse the Snap.
    Thanos comes to the realization that only wiping out half of all life would be a mistake and declares his intention to destroy the entire universe and recreate it in his image. A massive battle ensues between the heroes of the universe and Thanos, during which Nebula kills her past self after convincing Gamora from 2014 to rebel against their adoptive father and Captain Marvel arrives to lend her assistance.
    Just as Thanos is about to redo his deed, Iron Man snatches the stones and with the snap of his fingers, wipes the villain and his army out of existence, sacrificing himself in the process. In the aftermath, Stark is memorialized by his allies, as well as his wife Pepper Potts and daughter Morgan. The remaining Avengers then go their separate ways with Thor joining the Guardians of the Galaxy, Barton reuniting with his family, and Rogers making Wilson the new Captain America by giving him his shield, having decided to live out the life with Peggy Carter he always wanted after returning the stones to their proper places, thus concluding the Saga.↩︎

  9. Humans need nutrition, but they could do with a little pizzaz and flourish every once in a while.↩︎

  10. A variation on The Taste of Banzo’s Sword↩︎

  11. “To prevent climate breakdown and keep global heating below 3–4 degrees celsius, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewable energy – globally. Here’s a graphical blueprint on how we might get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 [63].”↩︎

  12. As various conspiracy theories through the ages attest to, humans are not skilled at differentiating between “possibility” and “plausibility” (see Plausible Reasoning [61]): it is possible, we suppose (in the sense that the probability is not 0), that lizard-like aliens have reached the Earth years ago and are secretly running the planet’s governments, but we could easily list a few million statements that are more plausible.↩︎

  13. A publication the Center for Countering Digital Hate places among “ten fringe publishers” that were responsible for nearly 70 percent of Facebook user interactions with climate change denialist content in 2021 [68], and whose un-ironic motto is “Equipping Readers With the Truth”.↩︎

  14. “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.”↩︎

  15. Occam’s razor does not claim that of two theories that explain some aspect of the Universe, the simplest one is by necessity the true one; it has itself become a bit of a story in modern times, one that is sometimes used as a crutch, indiscriminately, to dismiss claims that go against dearly-held beliefs. As always, the real world is more complicated than our stories.↩︎

  16. The stories we could tell…↩︎

  17. Replace with your own bugaboos, as needed.↩︎

  18. Bethan Nodwell had thousands of demonstrators in Ottawa hanging onto her every word.
    The Wakefielder, who has been known to disseminate COVID-19 information through social media that contradicts scientific experts and public health guidelines, was on stage on Parliament Hill on Feb. 4 during the Freedom Convoy protest, rallying thousands of protesters who have taken hold of downtown Ottawa and brought the country’s capital to a standstill.
    “My name is Bethan Nodwell and I’m a nurse,” she declared from the stage. Her comments drew roars from the crowd and deafening air horns from the rigs.
    “This is our year. This is where we turn it around, Canada the brave. This is it. You’re braving the cold, you’re braving the threat of losing your job, you’re braving it all to hold the line.”
    Nodwell quit her job as the head nurse at the Wakefield Hospital over vaccine mandates and COVID-19 regulations.
    “There were lots of things going on at the hospital that made it no longer a tenable, pleasant experience,” Nodwell said in an interview during the protest. “It was awful, and the mandates and the rule changes coming from the provincial government just made it worse and worse and worse.”
    Nodwell is an event organizer with Adopt-a-Trucker — a support team for the hundreds of long-haul rigs that have arrived in Ottawa from across the country.
    The Low Down toured the Adopt-a-Trucker headquarters at the Swiss Hotel downtown, where a dozen people were milling about, making sandwiches, loading generators onto trucks and rolling joints.
    Adopt-a-Trucker has been coordinating supplies – food, laundry services, warm clothing – to the truckers “holding the line” on Parliament Hill since they arrived Jan. 29. As of the publishing date, Adopt-a-Trucker has raised $536,284 online through Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo after GoFundMe recently shut down convoy fundraising. GiveSendGo has been linked to several far-right extremist groups, including the Proud Boys.
    It’s important to note that the Low Down was given exclusive access to the protest through a social connection with Nodwell. But her anti-vax and alternative COVID views have put distance between her and those she used to be close with in her hometown of Wakefield.
    Nodwell admits that she has lost “countless” local friends due to her controversial views, but told the Low Down, “the friends I lost were never really my friends to begin with.”
    And Nodwell is a main player in the convoy movement. Walking through the packed, elbow-to-elbow crowd downtown on Saturday, many protesters, truckers, veterans and other organizers threw high fives her way, while others embraced her and thanked her for her work. Nodwell fired up the crowds all day, while introducing a roster of speakers, including Dr. Paul Elias Alexander, Canadian health researcher and former Trump administration official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Alexander’s “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19 was exposed through internal emails by a Politico article in 2020.
    Nodwell called for peace and urged protestors to “pull out your cameras.”
    “You are the media now,” she shouted, as thousands of supporters cheered her on.
    “And we want you to hold the line. Hold the line. We’re not going nowhere, we’re not backing down. We may have lost our friends, but look what we’ve got, we’ve got each other now.”
    It’s this “unity” that truckers and convoy supporters have been celebrating over the past week-and-a-half, and truckers like Mike Johnston said he isn’t moving “until this fu**ing thing’s over.” Johnson invited the Low Down into his rig for an interview and to warm up from the cold.
    “I’m sick of seeing shit happening to my brothers and sisters,” said the Niagara trucker. “It’s about the mandate, it’s about the restrictions, it’s about family businesses that have been in families for generations that are lost; it’s about students having to give up their courses that they’ve worked so hard for all their lives because they don’t want to get vaccinated, they can’t go to school.”
    What this reporter witnessed on the afternoon of Feb. 4 was largely peaceful, but chaotic. Downtown Ottawa was like a lawless Wild West, with protesters drinking and partying in the streets with live music, DJs and dance parties and bouncy castles for the kids. Nobody touched me or told me to remove my mask. As a small town reporter, I was treated fairly. Some protesters even thanked me for “reporting the truth.”
    But, truth is, four people have been arrested so far for hate crimes and the city’s tip line has been lighting up with more than 150 calls. Police are also investigating an attempted arson at a Centretown highrise Feb. 6. Residents have been calling on the city’s police force to dismantle encampments, enforce bylaws and take back control of the downtown core. A group of residents has also launched a $9.8 million class-action lawsuit against the Freedom Convoy organizers for “emotional, mental and other distress and punitive damages” linked to excessive noise from consistent air horns and all-night partying. An Ottawa judge on Feb. 7 granted an interim injunction seeking to silence air horns from trucks. The injunction will expire in 10 days.
    Nodwell told the Low Down that her argument is simple: she wants medical experts to have a full debate on vaccines before the public is mandated to roll up their sleeves.
    When asked what she has to say to fed up residents and small businesses who have been forced to close or have lost revenue, she quipped, “Why can’t they open? I come in from Chelsea every single day. You can come to work.”
    Dave Mangano, Chelsea resident and owner of The Grand Pizzeria on George Street in the Byward Market, has been able to open, however because of the ongoing protests, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford has now called an “occupation,” sales have decreased by 80 per cent.
    “We’re open, but our sales have really, really dropped and there is no end in sight,” Mangano told the Low Down Feb. 6. “It looks really bad.”
    Mangano said he has been telling his younger staff – notably his 16 and 17-year-old hostesses – to stay home after protestors became aggressive towards staff for requiring masks and vaccine mandates. He noted that the restaurant isn’t experiencing constant harassment, but maybe one unpleasant person per hour.
    “They get a little bit gnarly at the door,” he said. “We’ve had stuff thrown at us at the door, lots of swearing. There is a little bit of aggression, so the younger staff, we are just telling to stay home. They aren’t working, they aren’t making money.”
    Mangano hopes for a peaceful solution to the stalemate soon, as he “can’t survive” in the current landscape.
    It’s much of the same for Perfect You owner Aleksandra Stewart of Chelsea, who says up to 65 per cent of her clients have cancelled appointments both this and last week due to the ongoing gridlock and excessive noise.
    “It’s just another layer of difficulty on top of everything else we have been dealing with,” said Stewart. She said she can hear the truckers’ horns from her Maclaren Street beauty salon.
    As of publishing date, Ottawa Police had cut off the supply chain for the convoy and have begun enforcing bylaws and regulations to take back control of the downtown core.
    Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency on Feb. 7, pleading for more assistance from all three levels of government to get the situation under control.
    Nodwell told the Low Down on Feb. 7 that Adopt-a-Trucker has no plans to cease support operations, even though police have said anyone caught delivering gasoline and “material supplies” in the “red zone” could face arrest.↩︎

  19. Essentially the same point was made by Elim Garak to Julian Bashir in the Deep Space Nine episode Improbable Cause, which served to underline how culturally different the Cardassians (Garak’s species) were from humans.↩︎

  20. A term coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen to denote the collective cultural capital available to humanity in the form of external media (e.g., tribal legends, folklore, nursery rhymes, books, videotapes, CD-ROMs, etc.). [79]↩︎

  21. One of us (Patrick) hates eggplant, so he knows which way his personal bias is taking him… what about you?↩︎

  22. Or, as “tvtropers” have it: Tropes Are Tools.↩︎

  23. Their word, not ours.↩︎

  24. See what we did, there?↩︎

  25. Collections of anecdotes, when viewed in their entirety and in the context in which they arise, can sometimes be interpreted as stories, over time: the body of Russian анекдоты (loosely translated as “anecdotes” or “jokes, although with a strong political undercurrent) paints a vivid portrait of life under Soviet rule [84].↩︎

  26. As they should: even getting one right is full-time work … who has the time to for more?↩︎

  27. Or in less flowery language, “less is more”.↩︎

  28. If you are so inclined philosophically and spiritually, of course.↩︎

  29. Our political leaning and pro-vaccination stance have been made clear, and clear, and clear again in this chapter… even if you agree with them, you might start to be right sick and tired of them (and who could blame you, really?).↩︎

  30. We are aware of the irony in this.↩︎