How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data: Karnvir Mundrey, Chief Ideation Officer at Atharva Marcom, in Conversation With Sam Knowles

Karnvir Mundrey: Hi Sam and welcome to the show. So, tell us a little bit about how you how you got here from there.  I know your storey is quite interesting with you having studied almost every field of study!. So tell us about your entire journey,

Sam Knowles: Well I’m I’m humbled and I’m delighted to be with you and talk to you about this. So, I started life as a storyteller. I had initial passion at school and then at university first time around for the classics for Latin and Greek and Sanskrit. And the reason I studied Sanskrit is because we were looking in my first degree the end of my first degree to find the proto Indo European language that led to Latin & Greek. You know, the word in Latin and Greek for brothers is ‘fratha’ and ‘bhratha’. So, actually there IS this original language.

So, I, when I was at school, I was at a state Grammar School in the English countryside. I was, I would say badly taught, or I wasn’t very good at mathematics. I did have a facility with language so I then at the end of my school career studied Latin, Greek and ancient History. I then went and studied classics and as I say, really fell in love with story, story telling, story structure and Aristotle’s very thin, very readable, particularly in translation book, “The Poetics” that looked at the three forms of entertainment they were in the classical Greek

Quite readable in Greek .  He talks about tragedy, comedy and epic poetry, and he talks a lot about the, the need to have a structure, the need to have well two sets of three what is a beginning, a middle, and an end, what he calls:  the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis. And I think that structure still underlines Hollywood and Bollywood movies to this day.

And he also talked about the need and a story for that to be three elements. One is pathos, which is emotion. One is logos, which is reasoning and the other is which is ethos, which is ethics essentially.  

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I think that those three elements are crucial, particularly pathos, and logos in effective storytelling, not just for the creative arts and box sets and Netflix and the rest of it. But actually, they’re essential for corporate and brand storytelling as well, because as creatures, we navigate the world using story and story structure.

We don’t think we’d be Tony Soprano or Jon Snow or Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. But actually, there’s an amazing amount that we learn through literature about how to navigate how to be a person.

So I left University with a degree in classes. I’ve been my school and college newsletter editor so I’d always written I’d always enjoyed storyy, and I went into communications corporate and then brand communications worked in agencies worked for Unilever brands, worked for all sorts of different corporations.

And just coming up to the millennium. I experienced what I think is known as pre millennial tension! And I went to go and see a vocational psychologist and we did a battery of psychometric tests, and she said you’re very interested in psychology, I recommend you should possibly study this more maybe become an occupational psychologist, maybe forensic but I think this is something for you.

So, I looked into it and I discovered that having a degree already, I was able to get on to a Master’s Course I found a Master’s Course, I quit work, I moved into the, into the countryside, south of England.

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And the first two hours remember I was badly taught mathematics and school. The first two hours of my studying life was a statistic lecture.

Karnvir Mundrey: And you expected to study psychology…

Sam Knowles: Well I thought you know sat the first few year exams to get onto this course. I thought it was going to be sort of  Dawkins and Pinker.

 I didn’t know what it was. I hadn’t really thought it through. But I had thrown my life up into the air, but I realised that the end of that, too, as I had brilliant statistics lectures, really good, one of whom was interested in the psychology of driving, one of those interested in psychology of phobias, and they use real examples to bring just boring dry statistical tests to life.

And I quickly concluded, and then massively overcompensated and became a statistics teacher for many, many years. Well, I master because I quickly decided, or discovered for me, that statistics, the use of simple correlations, to understand relationships cause and effect sometimes or sometimes just correlation relationships to determine relationships, tease out factors, was just another language.

Iit was just another way of using creating stories.

So I went back into consultancy. I became the father. I need to provide for my family, and back into consultancy.

And suddenly 2004, 2005, 2006 Twitter, Facebook come about data enters communications, now I haven’t been a PR man for 25 years, I can win some justification so that a lot of people who work in PR in the Anglo American market which is the market I know best are rank amateurs.

They have no professional qualifications, they have degrees in classics, but they don’t have professional qualifications and they certainly are not often very numerate.

They like storey that quite an empathetic bunch often, but they’re not very numerous, they don’t like a scientific paper. I love them I love them up, so that everyone gave them, and I became in an agency that was doing a lot of global work with Unilever with Hindustan Lever as well. was doing a lot of work around behavioural change so I helped to build models a behaviour change that used the principles of behavioural psychology to give people the information the motivation and the behavioural skills they need to change their behaviour, not just not telling people, but encouraging them, you know, showing them if you’re a newly urbanised person who’s been from generations.

 Why is it that your children should wash their hands at key meal times because they won’t get sick as often because they’ll do well at school and they’ll go on to have the life that you so that it was those type of campaigns, doing a lot of work with Lifebuoy and Unilever.

Anyway, I then worked a number of analytics businesses and just under six years ago I decided I wanted to be self determining.

As an American writer Dan Pink written a number of books, spoken, where we are today in the Royal Society of arts in London, and spoken here a number of times, he wrote, he’s written a number of books, particularly the one that talks about about drive, about human motivational behaviour, that talks about the tools that the autonomy, the mastery and purpose,

Sam Knowles is the author of Narrative By Numbers, an excellent book on using data for story telling!

Those are his that’s his trifecta for having a great quality of work life, and I suddenly this meant a lot to me. I’m going to be a data storyteller, built some clients very quickly has always happens when you know,  you work with a former client or you work with a former colleague or somebody else moves.

People said, Well, you know, if you’ve been in business for a year you’ll be doing fine.

So I said I’m still here, and then they said no three. I’m still here. Five and I’m still here. In the into the sixth year now!  And a lot of businesses don’t realise, I think particularly B2B businesses don’t realise that they need to talk and talk human and sound like people.

They believe that if they can particularly in this world of big data, if they use a lot of information they can browbeat their customers or their competitors and submission argue, quite the contrary, and I work with my clients to help them to tell, and to build fundamentally human stories that are underpinned by data.

You know, I don’t believe in all of the post truth, fake news world that we don’t need data. I think we need data more than ever, but it’s not about leading with data, it’s about using data to support the stories.

Now the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ talks about system one, system two thinking. We make our decisions, emotionally, and we justify those decisions and and make them real rationally.

So for me, I want to help my clients tell human stories about the benefits of working together in partnership or using this product, but the human stories, and then underpin those fundamentally with rational facts but not too many fundamentally about empathy and understanding how your audience is going to receive that message.

Karnvir Mundrey: So tell us a little bit about your book, you know, this amazing book that that is so unique. I mean I’ve read, maybe 20 books on storytelling but most of the books are around the same. The hero and you know, the guide and the all the standard structure of story.

So there’s hardly any book talking about data and storytelling .

Sam Knowles: You are very kind about the book.   I wanted I wanted to share some principles I’ve stumbled across. You know I have this chaotic on one level resume.

You know, I do a degree here I worked for 12 years I do two more degrees there I pivot over there. I create, it’s on one level it’s completely healthy but for me now, you know as a storyteller I look back and I can tell you it’s all it’s all been planned. And there are lots of books and podcasts and advice about story and story structure.

So there’s a Hollywood screenwriters script doctor who I’ve been trained by, Robert McKee who’s amazing writer does a  fantastic (job). On his training course you spend eleven and a half hours watching Casablanca to see every single move and every bit of emotion.

Great work on story. And there are lots of books that will take you know the principles of stories from Aristotle I was talking about before, that will take the principles from Joseph Campbell the hero’s journey the 12 steps that you go around.

Absolutely. But there are also more and more modern books on story that are very good but they say,  we’ve had enough of data. Data is getting in the way let’s get rid of data, let’s get back story. And then you look on the analytics side and on the analytic side there is, how to code in Python and Java there’s a..

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Karnvir Mundrey: There’s a, there’s an entire podcast which says shut the PowerPoint, close the laptop and tell the stories. So, it indicates that you cut the data out and, you know, go more human and forget the data.

Sam Knowles: I completely agree that particularly corporations, particularly B2B need to go more human.

But I do not I profoundly disagree that data and statistics are not the route of providing the evidence that we need to create and build sustainable stories. And so, there are there are lots of books on data visualisation, there are lots of courses on data visualisation and how to use data and present data in a in a more understandable way.

But I sort of I couldn’t quite believe I mean as I said I have this unusual academic career stretching over a long time, very academic family that’s why I had to do it you know I have nephews and nieces who were younger than me who were called doctors I had the itch to scratch!

But for me it’s entirely logical to say when I had that that penny dropping moment, I understood that by correlating variables and putting them into models, you could actually find something out, that was objectively true and hidden.

 Of course there are lots of pitfalls, you know, you take lots of data sets you put them all together and statistical model, you get false positives. Watch out for that.

There’s a fantastic both book and website called there’s there’s a Harvard law student called Tyler Vegan. He’s been studying harvard law for 15 years, but what he does is he goes and gets all the publicly available data sets, and he correlates, the number of people who’ve died getting tangled in sheets with cheese consumption or the divorce rate in vain with butter and margarine or sociology doctorates awarded and Nicolas Cage movies. It’s nonsense it’s all nonsense. There are 30,000 correlations he’s put together using against.

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So, but I really think I really thought that there was a niche, to get people to understand how they could use data and statistics and say is this underpinning this structure, this authority behind human storytelling. And fundamentally, I mean the message of the book it’s perfectly possible.

You don’t have to be a stats or mathematical genius but it’s perfectly possible to  use data and statistics to underpin your stories and to create more powerful more purposeful, more effective stories, I mean I argue that that you know the reductionist the scientist in me thinks there’s a there’s a simple equation of the modern knowledge economy, which is analytics plus storytelling equals influence.

There’s no point there’s absolutely no point in doing any form of communication I don’t believe. If you’re not trying to move people to action again Dan Pink the guy was talking about in his book To Sell is Human.

He says, we’re all in the moving business he doesn’t mean we all work in removals companies. we’re all persuaders, whether we’re a doctor who wants her patients to take drugs, whether we’re a teacher who wants her patients to do homework because they’ll get better exams results.

For all of those reasons, we’re all in the moving persuading business. We need emotional stories but they’ve got to be rooted are…

Karnvir Mundrey: a man with a girlfriend trying to trying to entice her to to marry her…

Sam Knowles:  Absolutely!! So there’s the emotional future of happiness and will be happy together will have children together will do all the things you want to do, and I’ll be able to provide for you.

You know, there are this many dollars or pounds or rupees that we’re going to see us through, so it’s a rational and the emotional.

It’s the balance, you know it’s too pretentious to talk about it being yin and yang, but I think that the powerful stories today, particularly in corporates and brands, and they can be in a very abstract areas you know they can be in tiny, you know, gene therapy, which may will revolutionise all kinds of therapy, which is an amazingly profound story but but if you focus just on the science or you focus just on the bottom line or you focus just on the data, and you don’t talk about the potential for humanity that this can unleash, you’re missing a trick.

So that’s, that’s the book and I mean,  I’m a huge, I mean I’ve mentioned, Dan Pink and various other people. I’m a huge fan of the book, what I wanted to do was to take a message and to share it more broadly, and you know the fact that we’re sitting on these steps here having this conversation is testament to that…

Karnvir Mundrey: So tell us a little bit about, you know, some learnings from the book I’m sure people need to buy that book to get it couldn’t be contained in 20 minutes over our podcast, but two minute, three minutes. You know how could people use data correctly.

Sam Knowles: I mean, I think there are many ways that they can do it I mean I’ve got six golden rules I won’t give you all six that.

Okay, two golden rules, so I mean I’ve given you some already. I’ve talked about talking human but finding and using relevant data so finding and using relevant data can be very hard in a big data world where there are so many potential data sources training yourself and learning what is going to be relevant and what and what isn’t what you need to put together what you do and that’s you know that that that’s, I think, a real skill and talking human.

 So talking human realising that if you don’t talk in a human way you’re not going to be able to convince other two other humans to take action.

The curse of knowledge. Okay, so the Harvard psychologist Harvard professor of psychology Steve Pinker written lots of books about language and language acquisition is kind of, he was MIT with Chomsky he was the kind of the heir apparent for Chomsky until he was taken by Harvard, great public intellectual done a lot of stuff about violence in society now going into a different direction, he’s written a beautiful quite a fat book called The Sense Of Style.

And in the Sense of Style. He talks a lot about this thing the curse of knowledge. So I think one of the things for communicators, in agencies and also in house. One of the one things I need to realise this is particularly true at market researchers. When you know a lot about a subject matter, an area. It’s very hard to unlearn what you know.

And in your communication, it’s very hard to not appreciate everybody doesn’t know this. Now, Pinker in his book The Sense of Style he talks a lot about a number of areas.

So one of those areas is academia. My business partner and I do a lot of work with academics I particularly in business schools and so on, but she across a whole range, getting them to find and express the real world impact of their academic work that’s very important to funding what is.

Karnvir Mundrey: But it’s both scary as well. It’s scary scary for them because if they if the results come out that you know you’re in this cocoon and you feel that there is a huge impact on your academic work and. And often, if I may say is, be a little bold that it may not have any impact on the academic goal so it may not, it may not…

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Sam Knowles: But as I say we do a lot of work, but Pinker points that academics are the worst the single worst at using jargon. So, you know, it’s no surprise for you, for me to say that when you’re using data and statistics, you need to you need to kind of keep it simple yet smart you need to use very simple language, particularly if there’s, if there’s a day so rich part of the storey that you’re telling you simple language. I mean, it is perfectly possible there are algorithms that you can that are available online where you can take the text that you write. And you can analyse that and you can see how many years of edge of continuous education, you would need to pass through in order to be able to understand that.

And what you want to aim foris about just the end of primary school. If you’re using data and, and a lot of people find numbers, challenging. If you’re using data, it’s really, really important that your language is simple and comprehensible.

So, you know, the objective of creating clarity in your work I think is is really important, but because of knowledge. So we have academics, we have people who are in finance. Some people argue that the entire legal profession exists because people are able to confuse you using Latin  words and and technical terms and technical areas scientists, all of these who have great stories to tell about new heart pacemakers or, or, I’m working with a with a company that’s doing some work in recycling of of  previously on recyclable products like tires and so on.

 Isn’t that extraordinary? that you’re able to recycle things that have been so polluted.

If you don’t talk about the human benefits, and I mean I another areas and lots of talk about kind of corporate and brand purpose these days, a lot of talk about about sustainability and what sustainability means.

If sustainability means that, that, that people in more developed parts of the world are benefiting from raw materials grown in less developed parts of the world.

 I’ve done lots of work for example, we’ve lived in Africa and in the Indian subcontinent. It can’t just be about creating a greener cup of tea needs to be about providing social benefit to the growing areas, and economic benefit of the growing areas.

But then you kind of think about when  when you’ve got this amazing opportunity that it’s not about exploitation anymore you know we’re kind of postcolonial, but there are too many businesses that particularly maybe in the palm oil areas in Indonesia itself, where, where that message just hasn’t quite yet got through to the Swiss or German or North American headquarters. And I think that there’s a there’s a real risk there if you don’t understand that if you don’t understand the type of human stories you need to tell, but also if you if you aren’t aware of this curse of knowledge.

 If you think if I just put one of my scientists in his or her white coats in front of the media will be fine. No, you won’t be fine. You need to tell human stories and engage people properly, get them to understand this emotional level and then support those stories with the rational underpin.

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Karnvir Mundrey: I really wanted to ask you one question because  you slipped over it, quite a few times during our conversation, but which are your best books which apart from the one of course that you’ve written, which are the ones you recommend people should read about. Give us a few recommendations or case books that you that you would like people to read apart from your own.

Sam Knowles: The first which is ‘Narrative by Numbers : How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data. Available worldwide.

 I’m following it up this year with. It’s a logical sequel. I think the third book will probably be about be about strategy.

But those are in the future, and the best data visualiser, and I think data storyteller possibly that there’s ever been, sadly died a couple of years ago, a man called Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling was very impish Swedish public health guy who was able to visualise six or seven dimensions in just two dimensions, through some software he created and then sold to Google in the late 2000s called Gapminder and now there is a thing called the Gapminder Foundation that his son and his daughter in law still run.

They published last year book called Fact fullness. Factfulness is a book that looks at actually the very positive stories there are in public health around the world. And they visualise and talk about the way that advances are being made and talk about how to talk about them, how to use data to talk about public health. Bill Gates, last year, bought a copy of that book, a physical copy of that book to everybody graduating from a North American University.

 I think that’s an extraordinarily brilliant thing to have done because actually being able to call on whether data is being used intelligently, honestly, or not, which is at the heart of this book. Factfullness, is a really important skill. I don’t think there are many places in the world that teach that.

So I think Factfullness, is what is one of my favourites.

 Robin McKee, this Hollywood’s rewrite the story if you want to know how to tell a story Robin Mickey story is a really good one. I’ve also mentioned him in the context of a couple of books already.

Dan Pink. He just published a book called “When”.  And  it is a bit like a kind of Malcolm Gladwell figure and you know anything by Gladwell is really worth reading. But Malcolm Gladwell, but he’s a bit lets say he’s low grade. He’s less academic, he’s more practical, but “When” shows you when during the day you should do things based on what psychology, sociology, economics, tells you, and what is interesting, I think, particularly to them lots of interesting things about this book.

Okay, one of the two tips in that book. One is to have a napacchino. So a napaccchino is, you know, we have a natural bio rhythmic dip after lunchtime. After lunchtime it’s a familiar it’s familiar to many, many people. What Pink recommends and what the science shows in this in this in this book is caffeine takes about 25 minutes to hit. So have a double espresso, put on my mask, put on some noise cancelling headphones. Lie down, set an alarm for 25 minutes because you probably won’t fall asleep when you start doing this.

But actually, you may well just be so relaxed so that when you wake up or when your alarm goes off of 25 minutes, you haven’t allowed yourself to go into deep sleep.

But also your the caffeine has just kicked in, because that’s how long it takes to kick in. So you fly through the rest of day. Well, it really works.

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The other thing that he talks about is the, the natural bio-rhythm of the day. Most people in office environments around the world, spend, well they start on their emails and they may never get beyond that right. That is the time you should be doing your creative writing work when you, when you kind of peak before lunchtime you’re in a recovery period, that’s when you should do your emails, and then when you’re kind of recovering later on he shows quite clearly. That’s what you should do your insight work when you’re slightly free your mind is slightly free, so Dan Pinks – great.

But I think, you know, I think, I think that there’s a lot to be, there’s a lot to be learned. As I say, actually there’s a there’s a on data visualisation, there’s a woman called Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. She’s a former Googler. She’s got a book called storytelling with data, and it, to be fair, it’s not much about storytelling. She was a bit about storey structure, but what she’s brilliant at is how to present charts.

And I’ve not come across a better book on how to strip your relevant information out, how to use just maybe on a slide, just a big number presented in a big font, and then how to use data in a visual way that really gets people to pay attention to it.

Karnvir Mundrey: We could go on and on. So, but thank you so much Sam, for taking the time and it was so much over learning!

With Atharva Marcom, India’s smartest PR firm. Karnvir Mundrey, the Chief Ideation Officer of Atharva Marcom, is also President of BCMA India. Reach out to them at or

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