What is the point of telling stories? The data storytelling revolution

As a child, I was known for my love of books. There was nothing better than getting stuck into a good story, especially one of Jacqueline Wilson’s classics. I loved reading so much that I once spent an entire summer holiday in the library reading and I even managed to win a reading competition!

Nowadays, I prefer to tell captivating stories – more specifically, telling stories with Data.

Data storytelling transforms data from neutral fields within a database into opinions, arguments and ultimately – insights.

Us Data Analysts and Scientists must realise that we hold the master key that unlocks golden revenue opportunities, drastically reduces costs, and increases operational efficiency in every organisation we find ourselves in.

However, when visualising, many of us are struggling to communicate the one thing amongst the mass of charts, colours, and tables that the stakeholders really care about – the message.

“An effective data visualisation can mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to communicating the findings of your study, raising money for your non-profit, presenting to your board or simply getting the point across to your audience.”

Why does Data without a story fail to have an impact?
Data without a story behind it fails to communicate the value of what we have and fails support a big idea. This ultimately makes it difficult for our audience to grasp the message we want to communicate and, subsequently, any actionable insights get lost.

The importance of being able to tell stories with data is becoming ever more important. Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic elegantly states in her book Storytelling with Data:

an effective data visualisation can mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to communicating the findings of your study, raising money for your non-profit, presenting to your board or simply getting the point across to your audience.

Numbers on their own do not tend to excite people. However, those numbers in conjunction with right-brained action words and stories trigger emotions and will ultimately have a greater influence on your audience than just plain numbers and meaningless visuals that do not serve our core purpose.

Not even sharks are exempt from the data revolution! (Source: Tricia Aanderud)

A Step-by-step guide to creating visuals that serve our core purpose – communicating our message
We know that visuals play a key part in Storytelling – so what do we need to do to better communicate our visuals and help those to communicate our story?

Step 1: Identify your audience
Understand the context – This includes identifying our audience, what we want them to know (our message) and how we can use the data we have to help our case.

Step 2: Choose an appropriate visual display
Keep the visual simple, a line chart is best when looking at data over time. However, there are specific use cases for each type of visual including heatmaps, slope graphs, bar charts, and column graphs but 3D charts? Don’t even go there!

Step 3: De-clutter your data
Only communicate the data that will get your message across, taking up excess cognitive load on your audience will only lead to their loss of attention and the message thereby being lost.

Step 4: Focus attention
This can be done by using colour, position, size (pre-attentive attributes), contrast and white space strategically.

Step 5: Think like a designer
Most data professionals have a quantitative background so this may initially seem difficult but by incorporating some traditional design concepts, form (our visualisation) will follow function (what we want our users to do with the given data).

How we can incorporate a story structure into a dashboard
There are four key elements, as identified by CEO of BI Brainz Mico Yuk, that any storyboard should contain to turn a series of visualisations and random graphs on a dashboard into a story. The elements are:

    • 1. Snapshot – Where are we today?

2. Trends – How did we got to where we are today?

3. Forecast – Where will we end up?

4. What if? – What do we need to change?

What lesson can we take away from this blog post?
There is so much power in the stories that we tell and when told correctly, the impact of your message will reach new heights that you once could only have dreamed of. Businesses want better return on their investment and Storytelling is the answer that will give them just that.

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