Storytelling Communications

Seeing the Story in the Data: How a Map Sparked My Freelance Writing Career

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In 2010, I didn’t even know freelance writing was a thing. Someone had given me a book called Freakonomics, a story that convinced me to be a cubicle-bound statistician. (Woo. Hoo.)

To be fair, I had always loved the way numeric comparisons, data points, and trend lines could change minds and motivate readers. You’ve gotta admit: there’s nothing better than a luscious nugget of logic to illustrate a point—or a story.

In fact, as a website visitor myself, if a news clip or article didn’t have a hard-hitting data point, I’d boost its bounce rate.

So I wasn’t too surprised to find myself settling into that corporate data analyst gig. My boss, the EVP of our $400M/year IT staffing company, was tasked with motivating the sales teams. He’d ask me for numbers to back up his strategy each week, and I’d query the databases to show the data in a light that supported his point.

For example, I could show the team a bright future based on their recent performance:

As a data analyst, I used graphs to make a point. Today, visual information helps me logically assess the true risks of freelance writing.

The resultant message was, “Keep it up. If you do, we’ll all be successful. And soon.”

Or, by rearranging the same data, I could show the dismal future of an uninspired, yo-yo sales performance:

As a data analyst, I used graphs to make a point. Today, visual information helps me logically assess the true risks of freelance writing.

(That’s right, you’re looking at two drastically different futures—both based on recent performance.)

My boss loved me for this simple wizardry—but there was a problem: our brilliant analytics didn’t excite the sales team. Like, ever.

Every rah-rah-rah sales meeting ended with the slow, shoulders-hunched dissipation of the huddle. Attendees seemed relieved to escape, not excited to implement. This threw my world out of balance. How could people be so unmoved by such dramatic visuals?

One night, I puzzled over the question, nearly pulling my hair out in confusion and frustration. I was studying my favorite graph in the world, called “the Figurative Map of the Successive Losses in Napoleon’s March on Russia,” by Charles Joseph Minard.

Minard

This graph shows Napoleon’s army (tan) dwindling as it moved toward Russia. You see how as the army trudged east, temperatures fell. The colder it got, the more men died, and the smaller the tan (army) became. As the army retreated (black), you can follow the chink-chink-chink of even more losses as it encountered river crossings—depicted by the vertical lines.

Here we have a graph that illustrates six variables:

  1. Geography
  2. Timeline
  3. Man count
  4. Temperature
  5. Events
  6. Scale

Combining those elements, Minard was able to show—in one glance—that the whole advance was a colossal mistake, and a tragic story.

That’s when it hit me: this graph told a story.

Stories are compelling. Data is not. Stories are inspiring and motivating and thought provoking. Stories are moving. They’re shareable. Numbers are simply punctuation marks in a narrative. They are merely supporting characters.

If our sales and marketing team could see what I saw—that every data analysis exercise was a scene in our company’s story—then we’d be unstoppable. After all, inspiration is motivation’s food—and our team was a cold, tired, hungry army. No wonder they looked so ragged.

Suddenly, I had tremendous compassion for these poor sales people. Day in and day out, my charts had been prescriptive, not descriptive. They’d translated into pressure, not a source of entertainment or energy.

My Course Change

I began composing our true, dramatic corporate stories with the occasional hard-hitting statistic to add emphasis. My job, though, was to interrogate our database. No writing. No speaking.

On and off the clock, I suddenly saw narratives everywhere. There was a crazy story unfolding for every brand I followed, and I as a consumer could steer each story’s end. It was no use trying to muscle my new perspective into its old box. It wouldn’t behave. So I let it loose and began exposing the little inspiring stories that connected brand to consumer.

Not long after, I kissed the cubicle goodbye and struck out on my own.

I started freelance writing, and like most newbs, I was freaked out by everything. My very common concerns made for even more risky business, because fear overshadowed the stories I wrote. You might know the feeling. Being uncertain of your professional future is almost more unbearable than outright failure.

Thankfully, though, another “aha” moment awaited me. It came the day I realized I could manipulate data to my favor. With a few more (or less) pieces of information, my data analysis skills took the risk out of freelancing. Here’s how those skills manifested:

  • I analyzed my competition. At first glance, it seems like there are writers everywhere, ready to supplant me. But when I considered my assignments in someone else’s hands, the competition faltered. In other words, to boost my own confidence, I imagined another writer working on my projects. Envisioning the sub-par storytelling of someone else encouraged me.
  • I determined (and accounted for) any worst-case scenarios. Even if I encountered a catastrophe, the temporary trouble wouldn’t be career ending; because brands aren’t interrupting anymore—they’re sharing. And they know they need help with the oration. Communications trends tell me I’m in business no matter what. As long as I have a strong internet connection and a little wit, I’ll always have work.
  • I applied statistics to my fear of health care coverage and tax administration. This means that I strictly control what I can control, and I dismiss the rest completely.

Defining Success

My first few gigs as a freelance writer paid peanuts. At the time, however, I didn’t realize that—because I was being compensated with more work, which meant a stronger portfolio and a powerful reputation among my editors (both of which are key markers of freelance writing success). If I had known at the time how much cash a good story was worth, I would have run from my first client. I’m so glad for what I didn’t know then, and so thankful I didn’t peter out like so many freelance writers do.

Currently, I’m earning quadruple per project, with almost zero back-and-forth discussion beforehand. I would never have landed the higher-paying, more influential clients without that foundation of trust.

I’m also earning a lifestyle worth living. Half of my articles are written poolside or from hotel rooms on location with my ridiculously fun family. That’s how I define freelance writing success.

Today I’m the CEO, director of sales, marketing manager, data analyst and content creator of my own rising brand. If that sounds like a lot of work, then you might still be thinking in terms of numbers in a sales meeting. Really though, they’re characters in an adventure story.

My brand’s story.

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit bethanyjohnson.com.

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