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Storytelling and Guinness Beer

Around the turn of last century (c.a. 1900) Guinness brewing company had a strategy they felt differentiated them from other brewers. They were hiring scientists and statisticians to apply cutting edge knowledge to help with quality control. One scientist Guinness hired was William Gosset. To improve the consistency of Guinness beer, Gosset decided to test each vat of beer to make sure it had the appropriate amount of yeast per glass. To that end, Gosset took a sample of beer from the vat, analyzed the chemical composition of the sample, and compared it to desired levels to see if it matched. At this time an appropriate statistic to do this analysis (the z distribution assumes a known population standard deviation) did not exist. So, Gosset, the brilliant man he was, created a new distribution to handle the problem. The distribution he created was not based on the population standard deviation, which was a major advance for statistical theory and practice, especially for analysis using small sample sizes. Gosset wanted to share this new distribution with the rest of the scientific community by publishing in an academic journal. However, Guinness wouldn’t allow his name or theirs to be associated with the article for fear that other breweries would use this test for quality control as well, thus eliminating one source of competitive advantage for Guinness. Gosset and Guinness eventually reached an agreement to disguise their involvement while sharing the new statistic with the larger community: Gosset would publish his distribution under a pseudonym so other breweries wouldn’t know Guinness was using statistics for quality control. Due to this arrangement, all these years later statistics students around the world learn to calculate Student’s t, not Gosset’s t (Gosset chose “Student” as his pseudonym).

I have taught statistics for a number of years now and each time we come to the t-test lecture I look forward to telling this story. Storytelling can be a way to awaken interest if the story is humorous or interesting, or simply told in a lively manner. Storytelling can be an effective way to convey values, such as sharing scientific breakthroughs with a larger audience irrespective of the desire to receive credit for those findings. Stories can also serve to educate; hopefully, because of the story, my statistics students will more readily remember that t-tests are different from z-tests because the population standard deviation is not known. In short, stories can communicate complex and meaningful messages in ways that engage listeners more deeply than simply telling them the messages you want them to internalize.

The story of Michael Dell creating customized Dell computers out of his dorm room sticks with us. So, when we think of Dell Computers, we immediately think of a customized product where components are mixed and matched to create a personalized end product.

The name Hawthorne Electric is immediately associated with the effect mere observation has on groups at work (i.e., the Hawthorne Effect). This is because the crazy story we are told about the varying lighting intensities the Hawthorne groups experienced, and the unexpected findings (production went up no matter what changes occurred, simply because these groups were being watched) helps us remember the findings.

The bystander effect is another psychological effect with a particularly memorable (and tragic) story. The bystander effect refers to the diffusion of responsibility felt in groups, and the finding that as the number of people in a group goes up, the probability that any one of those people will feel responsible to help should there be an emergency, goes down. This effect is taught in nearly all social psychology textbooks through the story of Kitty Genovese who was murdered while dozens of people listened in from their apartments without calling for help, each assuming someone else would call the police.

Stories are incredibly powerful. This is why there are storytelling traditions in every culture. Stories that contain a moral, even (perhaps especially) those we hear as children, stick with us and resurface at appropriate moments (e.g., The Boy Who Cried Wolf). Leaders who know how to use story to communicate values, messages, and strategic visions are better equipped to influence and inspire. What stories do you tell?

Comments

Great stories Joaquin. I love Guinness and I never heard this story despite taking 7 statistics and research design courses over the years. (Wish I had you as my teacher). I wanted to add an additional resources for people interested in the intersection between Leadership and Story-telling. The book by Howard Gardner, "Leading Minds" focuses on the stories leaders create for their followers and is a great read profiling numerous famous world leaders throughout history.

Hey, Yaron, thanks for the additional resource. That is a great book and totally worth checking out. Even statistics can be fun when you add a good story.

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