Do Numbers Tell Stories?

By Gill Simpson, Finance Manager, Acts Trust

What image does ‘Story Telling’ conjure up for you? ‘Once upon a time’ ….. ‘They lived happily ever after’ maybe. Perhaps it has taken you back to school, to that end of day story read to you before heading home. A story just before bedtime is a fond childhood memory for many people. In Britain most stories told are those read from a book brought alive with facial expressions, tone and pace of voice and a little embellishment from the reader. Some people are amazing at improvising stories they tell and in many cultures stories are used as a way of passing on traditions and history.

A common thread through all the above examples are words, written and/or spoken. Would you be surprised to know that numbers form stories too? An example you are probably see is when you look at the balance in your bank account. If you see it is overdrawn then maybe it’s reminding you of that online shopping spree you had at the weekend. Alternatively if could be telling you your outgoings are greater than your income and it’s the same story every month. If this is the case I would encourage you to seek help sooner rather than later and can recommend the service offered by Christians Against Poverty – a call to their Head Office in Bradford on 0800 328 0006 will link you up to the help available in Lincoln.  

If an organisation is to understand what is going on within itself then it needs good number story tellers.

These often come with fancy sounding job titles such as Data Analysts or Management Accountants however these people are essentially story tellers. They look at the numbers within an organisation and, by acting as an interpreter, they extract information from numbers in such a way that they tell the stories of what is happening. The stories can often have plots and sub plots, goodies and baddies just as you’d expect a story to have. 

A number story for an organisation may show a healthy position overall story (making a good profit/showing a healthy surplus) however within it there may be all kinds of sub plots happening. Have you ever seen in the news that a well known high street name is closing a number of its unprofitable stores? Each of the closing stores is a sub plot within the overall story which the story tellers have shone the spotlight on. Sometimes sub plots may show examples of very healthy numbers – is something brilliant going on there or has someone entered the wrong numbers into the system either accidentally or deliberately? Again a task for the number story tellers to dig deeper and do a bit of detective work to uncover the truth.   

In contrast to the goodies who draw out the truth in their number story-telling, there are also the number baddies who go to extreme lengths to hide the reality of the numbers and attempt to present a false position to either make them look good or for financial gain. Sadly I once witnessed an organisation almost destroyed by the deliberate manipulation of numbers by an individual who hid a deteriorating situation from the directors – thankfully exposed by a software upgrade that the perpetrator hadn’t factored in to their plans.

A happy ending for number stories is when an organisation makes good decisions based on the stories the numbers have told the decision makers rather than decisions based on feelings or vague rumours. 

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