Data Storytelling

Data Storytelling
Image by Danni Liu

I'll never forget the time I was so terrified of public speaking that I went to my manager with teary eyes because I couldn't deal with the prospect of being the person launching the new BI solution developed by our parent company to over a hundred people in sales and marketing. The fear wasn't just about the presentation itself, which, to be honest, involved a product that was far from perfect and had its share of issues. Thinking of how I would be judged and stumbling over my words while everyone either laughed, pitied, or ignored me completely made me sick in the stomach. Despite all the anxiety, sleepless nights, and countless mouth ulcers, I somehow lived through it. It was a turning point for me, realizing just how much of a barrier my fear of speaking was to my career and reaching my goals. Since then, I've made a conscious choice to work on it.

One thing I practice helping with that is studying presentations. I've sat through many dull presentations, ones that could quickly put you to sleep. But instead of zoning out like I used to, I started paying close attention. I analyzed why some presentations failed to hold my interest—was it an information overload, unclear context, monotonous delivery, cluttered slides, or something else? On the flip side, whenever I encountered a captivating presentation, I'd dissect it to figure out what made it engaging. Time and again, I found that storytelling was a key ingredient.

I've seen brilliant data scientists and analysts lose their audience minutes into their presentations (this includes me 😅), wasting all the hard work and potential of their projects. It became clear to me that to truly make an impact and ensure that all the effort isn't for nothing, it is important to connect with the audience. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is through storytelling.

And so, this blog is about data storytelling. It's for anyone who's had to present data, whether you're a data professional or not. You'll likely need to share statistical information at some point, and doing it effectively can make a world of difference.

Here, we'll look at:

  1. Why tell story with data
  2. What it means to tell a story with data
  3. How you can do it

While I'm no expert and am still learning, I believe understanding and discussing this can help us improve our ability to communicate engagingly and effectively. As the saying goes, "first step towards change is awareness." So, are you ready? Let's first look at why we need storytelling with data.

Why Tell Story with Data

Facts and figures are important in business, but the problem is that they rarely make a lasting impression. Even though I work with data, I find myself zoning out when it's just numbers on numbers. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. I've learned that most of us don't hold onto raw facts and figures.

So why is storytelling the way to go? Well, we humans love stories. Quoting the author, Philip Pullman,

"After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the things we need the most in the world."

Stories stick with us way more than statistics ever could. They have this unique power to plant ideas and move us. Think about it. Do you remember the specifics of any financial reporting presentation you sat through, with all its percentages, growth figures and market shares? Probably not. But a good story? That can stay with you for ages.

Here's another thing: stories solicit emotions. Despite being taught the shady side of emotions when it comes to decision-making, what is interesting is that it's a very crucial element in decision-making. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, has research that reveals that making choices, even simple ones, can be tough without emotions. If you're interested in this research, read it here. By weaving data into stories, we can help our audience feel something, leading them to decisions much quicker.

Another cool thing about stories is that they make us let our guard down. When we're hit with raw data, our critical shields go up. But wrap that data in a story, and suddenly, we're more open, less inclined to pick things apart. So, don't bombard your audience with numbers if you want your message to resonate. Tell them a story instead. It's not just about the data. It's about making that data mean something.

What it Means to Tell Story with Data

There are three ingredients to telling a story with data

  • Narrative/ story
  • Visuals
  • Data

Narrative/ Story: Like any story, you need a plot that takes your audience from start to finish. You'll need change/ or conflict in the story. A good narrative doesn't just dump data, it connects the dots, highlighting the journey from problem to solution or question to answer. It's also about setting a context that resonates with your audience, making them care about the numbers.

Visuals: humans are visual creatures. We understand concepts much faster when they're presented in a visual format. This is where charts, graphs, and infographics come into play. They transform abstract numbers into something we can see and understand at a glance. Visuals are not just decorative; they're key in illuminating trends, patterns, and outliers that might be invisible in raw data. They serve as visual evidence that bolsters your story.

Data: Of course, at the heart of data storytelling is the data itself. It's the foundation upon which your narrative and visuals are built. It's super important to approach data with integrity. What I mean by that is not starting with a preconceived story and then cherry-picking data to support it- that's data falsification.

A well-told data story can influence decisions, spark discussions, and lead to meaningful changes. Telling a story with data is a form of art as much as a science. It requires creativity; analytical thinking; and a deep understanding of your audience, like their goals and priorities, existing beliefs and preferences, data literacy, topic familiarity, etc.

On that note, let's segue into how we can do it. There is a framework for this.

How Do You Do It

I used to think telling a story with data is complex, but it's much simpler than most people believe. There are different types of story arcs, by that, I mean story structures. The simplest one to learn and execute as a beginner is the three-element story arc: setup, conflict and resolution.

  1. Set the scene: every story has a beginning. Start with the "before" situation, laying out the baseline/ or status quo.
  2. Conflict: this adds drama. It is where things get interesting with data showing a shift or challenge.
  3. Resolution: and like every good story has an end, show the "after" situation. What did the drama lead to? Here's where you present the resolution or answer to the question.

This short video (4:46) here shows how this is achieved with data.

There you have it. I hope you took away some nuggets from this blog. Here's to creating more captivating presentations and putting those yawn-ones to rest! 😃

Oh before you go, there is this book on storytelling that I highly highly recommend if you want to level up in communication...Putting Stories to Work by Shawn Callahan. Check it out.