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Storytelling with Data

How to bring structure to your analytics presentations and promote increased comprehension with stories

Storytelling, or assigning a narrative to data for comprehension purposes, has become a widespread trend in the data analytics and marketing communities, which means it’s officially being overused and misrepresented by the majority of the industry.

To clarify the intent of storytelling and outline a few best practices of implementing data narratives with meaning, let’s start with defining the word “story.” In the world of analytics, the word “story” can be used with either an uppercase or lowercase “s” — the former insinuating that the Story includes a plot, tension, climax, resolution and well-thought-out narrative arc, while a story must rely on the data to stand on its own with each individual graph—providing viewers with the “so what.” Both versions of analytical stories are important, but learning how to correctly assign data Stories can harness emotions, promote data recall, and stimulate increased comprehension where traditional stories cannot.

Children’s books are fantastic examples of just how powerful Storytelling can be. Think about your favorite book as a child—mine was The BFG by Roald Dahl. I absolutely loved the idea of a friendly giant who made sure children had good dreams and protected them from evil beings. The inclusion of fun made-up words, like Snozzcumbers, also didn’t hurt. Even though I haven’t thought about the book in years, I can still remember key plot points and takeaways at the drop of a hat. The same principle applies to storytelling with data and that’s why, when done correctly, applying narrative arcs to your data has such a monumental impact and is generally more well received over listing facts on a slide.

A typical business presentation follows a linear path, which starts with a hypothesis, transitions into sharing the data and how it was cleaned, and ends by reviewing analysis and findings. It’s the most natural presentation path, but the selfish choice because linear presentations don’t allow for audience consideration. Instead, applying a tailored narrative arc gives a single, unique data set the ability to resonate with a broader audience.

The biggest component of Story, is the idea of tension. By identifying conflict from audience’s point of view and then framing a resolution allows the audience to contemplate and resolve the problem via actions or discussions.

THE PROCESS

To build a Story, start with a large stack of Post-It notes. Jot down one idea per note without concern for order or importance—each idea can represent a data point, a topic, examples, current presentation slides and more. This 10-minute, cathartic brain dump will allow you to exhaust possibilities within the data set and form a well-rounded narrative.

Once all ideas are on paper, step back (literally) and think about how they can be grouped together. Ask yourself, where are there commonalities? How can I put structure around this to help it make sense to someone else? Consider specific data points and decide whether or not they are central to the Story—you should probably know the answer, but not every data point needs to be a core part of the content. Intelligently discarding will lead to a more focused narrative and promote strategic time allocation. With a concise story comes a shorter slide deck and more time spent on effective content.

Brainstorm → Rearrange → Storyboard

Once you have a healthy discard pile and structured groups, begin to storyboard. Initially, the board will take a linear shape and that’s ok. Consider what the audience needs to know, what kind of tension exists within the data, and how you can structure the narrative to illustrate a point or counteract a bias. Can you use foreshadowing or flashbacks to build tension? Is it a live presentation where you can reveal things piece-by-piece or does everything need to be written down? Another 10 minutes spent answering these questions will round out your storyboard and provide an opportunity to garner feedback on the data presentation. Feedback at this stage saves time on developing multiple iterations and ensures your audience gets clear insights into their data.

While extremely effective, storyboarding doesn’t always need to accompany data visualization. If you don’t have sufficient context or if it over-dramatizes your point, assigning a narrative arc is probably not appropriate. Whether or not it’s the right fit for your next report, understanding the impact of assigning a Story will make you a more well-rounded presenter. The following seven principles are an excellent starting point:

Present a clear intention

Regardless of your audience, differentiate between exploratory and explanatory data visualizations within your presentation. Are you exploring a possibility or concretely demonstrating facts?

Establish an “aha” moment

Each of your graphs should allow your audience to see an insight that was not otherwise apparent.

Don’t overcomplicate

Extrapolating far-fetched conclusions or creating four different graphs when one will suffice will confuse your audience and hinder your credibility. Choose your graphs and presentation methods with purpose and keep it simple.

Get rid of non-essentials

Along the lines of not overcomplicating your Story, identify and eliminate clutter and distractions within your graphs. Keep your color palette simple and only include enough data to illustrate a clear intention and present an “aha” moment.

Create visual hierarchy

Your graphs should immediately make it clear where to look.

Title effectively

Craft clear and concise titles and descriptions and include footnotes that explain your methodology. You should also spell out any acronyms you’ve included.

Audience matters above all else

Remember your audience when crafting a Story and drafting your graphs. What works for one audience may not, and probably won’t, for another.

One of Punchkick’s goals in providing clients with analytical reporting is delivering digestible information that both humanizes and clarifies data. Questions about storytelling with data or analytics in general? We’d love to chat.