Why giving “just the facts” is lethal to your work

Little Blue Riding Hood:   Why Grandma, what big ears you've got! Sgt. Wednesday: All the better to get the facts. I just want to get the facts, ma'am.

If you're young or haven't watched much Nick at Night, you won't recognize the Dragnet spoof above. I love Joe Friday, the show's police officer who was always trying to calm people down when he was researching a case.   Too bad his words are bad advice.

If you pay close attention, when you give someone “just the facts,” you'll likely notice them subtly disengage.  People probably don’t intend to glaze over, but slowly their minds shut down.

When this happens to me, I start wondering if the person conveying the information knows they have lost their audience or if they realize they appear ill-prepared.

Probably not, I think, because they likely believe their job is to be a fact gatherer, not a storyteller.  I see this as a “miss” each and every time.

People know how google works to use Google. Anyone can find facts online. Everyone is capable of reading an email.

People don't carve time out of their day to hear an information stream, but they will to hear a story.

It’s not that anyone dislikes facts.

Quite the contrary, most appreciate data points which are accurate, logical, and rigorously checked.  Facts are foundational to getting the strategy right in the same way grammar makes a story readable and clear.

In truth, the most critical question with all facts is, “what story does this information tell?”

I am dogmatic on this point.  I stop meetings routinely and ask, “Why should we care about this?”

I rarely get blank stares.  Most of the time people KNOW the story, but they give the just the data because they assume the story is self-evident.


In books, the third person narrative voice usually explains why a character is behaving as they are.  The narrator provides context and insight that moves the story along.

This isn’t true in real life.

In real life WE have to be the narrators.  WE have to tell the stories. And, make no mistake, there are always stories to be told.

Exhibit A: The new Extra Gum commercial.  First, Mercedes launches a new car feature using a chicken, now a gum company tells a story using their wrappers.

Check it out…

In a sea of unremarkable, utterly forgettable gum commercials, this one stands out.

There are thousands of information points Extra could have shared, but they opted for a story and a powerful tag line.

Give extra - Get Extra

So before you download a bunch of data, ask yourself, “why should my audience care about this information?” Then make sure whatever facts you’re presenting tell a story.

And then notice how your audience stays engaged.