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Combining data and storytelling to increase your impact

14 March 2024

News and media


With the world awash with data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) beginning to take over many of the more routine tasks of the public sector – what do public servants need to do to remain relevant and effective?

ANZSOG program presenter, Dr Zina O’Leary, says that to be influential and maximise impact public servants  need to “understand how responsive we need to be in an uncertain future. Whether it be climate change, political change, or AI, we don’t know what’s going to come up in 10 years, but we must become resilient and be very proactive, not reactive”.

In this environment, the fusion of data and storytelling emerges as a powerful and persuasive technique for public servants to communicate the need for change and influence their communities. Public servants need to consistently strive to optimize impact and influence in ever-changing environments. A key is to be highly purposeful in communication.

Dr O’Leary is presenting ANZSOG’s upcoming online Data and Storytelling in Policy program which will explore these issues with public servants who want to think more deeply about purpose and change the way they work from day-to-day.

“Public servants need to be clear on the purpose of every piece of communication and to really know their audience. Being purposeful is about having an audience-related objective, so knowing the audience is paramount.”

“Having that objective and your end goal very clear in your mind will give you a strategic narrative, and the data and storytelling underneath that is offered to help move people along the journey.”

She said that often public sector communication ignored its impact on the audience and focused too much on the public sector’s own needs.

“I find that we are much too self-centered when it comes to communication. It’s more ‘I think you should know this’ or ‘here’s all the data we have’ rather than thinking ‘this is what my audience needs, and this is where I want my audience to go’.”

“How can we, in practice, create that momentum where you get people to go where you want? It’s about focusing on what you want the audience to do, rather than what you want to say. We can then support that journey with data and stories.”

Balancing data with real-world evaluation and communication

With the sheer mass of data available, and AI taking the lead in data analysis, the opportunity for more robust data driven stories is ever growing.

“AI has enormous potential to aid us in better data analysis and storytelling, but we must know how to drive it. We have access to an extraordinary amount of data, and until now we have not had access to tools to analyse that data efficiently. So, I am all for AI being something that can help us make meaning out of large masses of data. And if it can help us with storytelling all the better.”

“AI analysis, however, needs to be confirmed on the ground. If you are looking at a data trend, it is worth talking to real people and getting a sense of what’s happening out there. Combining quantitative and qualitative to look for things that ‘ring true’ is really important,” Dr O’Leary said.

“It also makes evaluation even more critical. Anytime we do any kind of policy work, we need to check in to see whether our initiatives, and implementation of those initiatives, have taken us where we planned to go.”

Dr O’Leary said that the whole field of communication, not just storytelling, would become more important for public servants in coming years.

“Communication is going to become even more critical. It has always been important, but public servants only have so much time and it is not always something we have been able to focus on. For example, if we have 100 minutes to work on a communication piece, we will spend 90 minutes on content and maybe 10 minutes, if we’re lucky, on how we will communicate that content.”

“Now with AI tools, you might get that content done in 10 minutes and have 90 minutes to think about: how am I going to make an impact? How am I going to motivate people? How am I going to change them?”

“AI is creating a shift from task-oriented work to a need for connection. This means working on communication skills, interpersonal skills, our engagement with community. Even if AI writes it better than you, it is not going to deliver it with the same authentic passion.”

“I don’t think we have always prioritised these skills in the public sector, but it is time. We will have all the data meticulously organised, but it is up to us to create trust. And trust is essential for moving people into new and sometimes uncomfortable spaces.”

Inspiring public servants to change how they work

Data and Storytelling in Policy is an interactive online program, which will increase participants’ understanding of the power of storytelling and the value of relevant, credible data – and the impact they can make in combination.

“We work on how you can integrate data and story coherently and powerfully, so that you have much more than anecdotes that don’t sound credible or this data that is alienating. We work towards integrated communication that has impact.”

Dr O’Leary said she wanted participants in the Data and Storytelling in Policy program to become more confident in their ability to influence community and the policy debate, and to use storytelling and data as critical tools to lift their impact and influence.

“I want them to use the power of the self as well and let their own energy and presence shine. Public servants are so extraordinarily dedicated, and they are not short of good ideas. But they need to know that good ideas and good intent are not enough. They need to find ways to communicate so that ideas turn into action.”

“My goal in the workshop is that everyone will be able to identify where their challenges are, step out of their comfort zone, and try to do some things differently.”

“This workshop is not about participants knowing what can be done. This is about getting them to have the confidence to apply it. It’s about making real change tomorrow.”


Data and Storytelling in Policy will be taught across two three-hour online sessions on 1-2 May, with a second delivery on 21-22 August. The workshop is aimed at early career public sector, local government, and not-for-profit managers, and those looking for a skills refresh. It will incorporate a variety of inputs, group discussion and small group work. Registrations are now open, for more information visit the Data and Storytelling in Policy page on our website.