In the 1989 movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams, playing the iconoclastic English teacher John Keating, dismisses the notion that you can judge the perfection of a poem mathematically by plotting how artfully it employs meter, rhyme, and metaphor against how important the subject is. Rather than have his students think they could graph the relative merits of, say, a Shakespeare sonnet against a poem by Alan Ginsberg, he has them rip up their textbooks. Data can’t tell us anything about stories, he’s saying, as pages of Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., fly all over the room.
Businesspeople are often advised to turn their data into stories to make them more persuasive. And that is certainly good advice. But they are given precious few tools to help them do that. It turns out though, John Keating notwithstanding, that graphs can be remarkably useful in demonstrating the mechanics underpinning an effective story. One person who’d given this a lot of thought was novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a real-life literary iconoclast if there ever was one.