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cash register pr blogI’m a big fan of The Economist.

The writers have perfected storytelling for a business audience.

Of course, the writers toil in relative obscurity with a no-byline policy that leaves readers to wonder “Who the hell wrote that piece?

So I can’t tell you who penned the masterpiece called “A Different Game,” addressing data storage in the context of business intelligence (or BI for those acronymiaks) and data mining.

Not exactly a topic that quickens the pulse.

But look at how The Economist jumps into the story:

In 1879 James Ritty, a saloon-keeper in Dayton, Ohio, received a patent for a wooden contraption that he dubbed the “incorruptible cashier”. With a set of buttons and a loud bell, the device, sold by National Cash Register (NCR), was little more than a simple adding machine. Yet as an early form of managing information flows in American business the cash register had a huge impact. It not only reduced pilferage by alerting the shopkeeper when the till was opened; by recording every transaction, it also provided an instant overview of what was happening in the business.

What a terrific anecdote.

I always wondered why cash registers had bells.

Also enjoy the way the reader is left to connect the dots that Mr. Ritty’s employees were stealing him blind.

After pulling in the reader with the Dodge City history, the story fast-forwards to today:

Sales data remain one of a company’s most important assets. In 2004 Wal-Mart peered into its mammoth databases and noticed that before a hurricane struck, there was a run on flashlights and batteries, as might be expected; but also on Pop-Tarts, a sugary American breakfast snack. On reflection it is clear that the snack would be a handy thing to eat in a blackout, but the retailer would not have thought to stock up on it before a storm. The company whose system crunched Wal-Mart’s numbers was none other than NCR and its data-warehousing unit, Teradata, now an independent firm.

pop-tarts business storytellingI believe we have a sighting of symmetrical anecdotes.

But do we really need a definition of a Pop-Tart?

For the powers that be at The Economist, I can assure you that your readers – even those who sip sherry with an upright pinkie – know what a Pop-Tart is.

Furthermore, characterizing the Pop-Tart as “sugary” is a cheap shot. A little homework would have revealed flavors such strawberry are now made with “real fruit” and only 17 grams of sugar. Geez, a fuji apple rings in with the same 17 grams of sugar.

On the positive side, using Pop-Tarts as a bridge to explaining the benefits derived from business intelligence resonates:

Analytics—performing statistical operations for forecasting or uncovering correlations such as between Pop-Tarts and hurricanes—can have a big pay-off.

To gain a true appreciation for The Economist’s storytelling, check out a trade book’s story on business intelligence in which lines such as:

“For sure, BI analytic apps and dashboards are hotter than a recent Tiger Woods photograph.”

serve as “colorful” fodder.

The Economist piece goes on to share how heavyweights ranging from Nestlé to Wal-Mart to Li & Fung have got the sift-data religion before closing with one final quantifiable burst:

Visa, a credit-card company, in a recent trial with Hadoop crunched two years of test records, or 73 billion transactions, amounting to 36 terabytes of data. The processing time fell from one month with traditional methods to a mere 13 minutes. It is a striking successor of Ritty’s incorruptible cashier for a data-driven age.

Naturally, the story concludes with the “incorruptible cashier.”


Comments

  • Storytelling Narrative Brands: A look at this week's stories

    […] Ishmael’s Corner » The Economist Showcases the Anecdote as an Art Form Lou Hoffman talks about PopTarts, The Economist and storytelling. […]

    Reply
  • Richard Raquet

    Also a fan of the Economist and agree, they do follow a classic story telling style in their writing, especially special reports like this. As for the Pop Tarts…be fair, this is a British publication read around the world so quite possible some readers have never heard of Pop Tarts.

    Reply
  • Lou Hoffman

    Richard,

    Appreciate you taking the time to check out the blog and comment.

    You’re right about the Pop Tarts. I lived in the UK for a couple of years and the only store that sold them was the American Store in Virgina Water (Surrey).

    And even there, they weren’t exactly a hot seller.

    Reply
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