Professional Identity

Why We’re All Artists

I’ve been watching a lot of food documentaries lately. As with most artists storytelling is everywhere. We take for granted that artists need to tell a story to prove the value of their work. Art is weird. It’s supposed to be unique and a mysterious human expression. Spreadsheets, generally less so. As a result, most professionals miss out.

As a product of human work, art requires a story. It is the rare piece of art that commands the same attention without a story as it does with one. Consider how differently we feel when we’re told an art piece–that we believe is the original–is a fake. To the average buyer, the artistic elements are the same–we can’t tell the difference–but “It’s worthless!” Stories create the value of work.

What Artists Do Better

Artists smartly spend their careers developing compelling stories about their work. They develop their own perspective on what their art is, what dialogue it has with contemporary and historical trends, how it’s distinct, how it reveals new insights into complex ideas, and how the viewer feels or should feel as they engage it. This is just as true for top chefs as for top sculptures. (Read here how the chef of El Bulli communicates his art.)

What then is the role of stories among the “professional class?”  After all, a spreadsheet is just data and the data are there right in front of you. But what happens the moment that spreadsheet is sent? What does a boss say next?

“What do these calculations mean for…(the client, budget, team, future)?” The boss not only is asking for a story, but wants, even expects it. “Well, it’s likely that these changes in our costs will reduce our ability to expand in the third quarter and put our international ambitions on hold.” There it is: we start here, this happens, then this happens. Characters, Action, Outcomes.

The most successful professionals infuse what could be a boring, sterile story with more details and implications–that’s salesmanship and persuasion. So when even a spreadsheet requires a story, so too does the analyst and her work.

How do you explain your work? Share your first version on our LinkedIN Page and I’ll respond with tips to improve it.