Stories are “memorable, persuasive and engaging.” Brent Dykes’ Data Storytelling: The Essential Data Science Skill Everyone Needs does an excellent job of explaining why. He cites an experiment where only 5% of people could remember even one single statistic, but 63% remembered stories. (Which begs the question: Why am I quoting statistics to you?)
Data storytelling is the most powerful tool your organization has to motivate your team into acting on business intelligence (BI). But data storytelling isn’t just charts and graphs. It’s much more than clear, concise data visualizations. As Dykes illustrates with a series of Venn diagrams, data storytelling weaves together data, visuals and narrative. When the right data, visuals and narrative are combined in the right way, it elicits CHANGE. Smart change that grows and improves your business.
So, how do you tell a compelling data story that inspires action and elicits change? I’m so glad you asked!
TAILOR YOUR STORY TO YOUR AUDIENCE
When I build BI platforms, I make them flexible and customizable, so users only see the data they want/need to see. The same principle applies to data storytelling. If it’s going to inspire action, your message must be relevant to your audience. Don’t tell a lawyer story to a room full of doctors. But let’s take this advice a step further than mere relevancy.
Obviously, Mind Over Machines is a human-centric consultancy. You won’t be surprised to hear me say: People (not data) are the heroes of data storytelling. Can you make your audience – or the people they care most about – the heroes of the story you are telling? My colleagues over in sales want to hear a story about what their leads are feeling, thinking and doing. While my fellow consultants and I are more interested in stories that cast our clients as the main protagonists.
TELL THE STORY, NOT THE AUTHOR’S JOURNEY
Have you been in a meeting where the data analyst at the front of the room opens with: “Well, we had this data set, and we wanted to know X, so we did Y and Z”? It’s a snoozefest because the story is getting buried in the methodology. Of course your methodology should be ironclad; that’s why you read Data Storytelling: The Prequel. But it isn’t the star of the show. It’s the unsung catalyst for the big reveal, the revolutionary insight your story is leading up to.
Remember your middle school English classes? Stick to that tried-and-true dramatic structure: exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution/denouement. “It was a dark and stormy night, leads were down, but then, marketing launched a campaign…” sure beats, “We approached the data with an initial hypothesis.”
MARRY PICTURE WITH STORY
I’m a stickler for clear, easy-to-read visualizations. Unlike a BI dashboard that can show multiple KPIs and their data points simultaneously, a data story should present a series of visualizations, each with ONE obvious takeaway. Your narrative tells the story, explaining how the images are related. If your narrative has to describe the visualization, you did it wrong. There are lots of tools – layout, color, font, etc. – a designer can use to make a chart’s takeaway really pop. Here, in Dykes’ follow-up data storytelling post, he shows side-by-side comparisons of ambiguous charts that are then fixed to tell one cohesive story.
Why is it so important to combine images with words? Because, as John Medina explains in his book Brain Rules, vision trumps all other senses: “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”
THE END IS JUST THE BEGINNING
If you follow these guidelines for crafting a compelling data story, your audience will be energized to keep the action going. Channel that energy. If you told a success story, assemble a team to leverage that success into more wins. If your data uncovered a problem, put together a team that will further dig into the ‘why’ and then propose and implement a solution. Don’t forget to define measurable success and set a timeline to keep momentum on track.
Data analysts can do more than just build your BI platform. We help you find and tell your critical data stories in ways that inspire action. Who knows your data better than the team that assembled and framed it? Today’s data analysts double as smart business strategy consultants because we are uniquely positioned to showcase your data and help you formulate plans to move out on what it’s telling you. Don’t stop at the pretty dashboards. Tell their stories and harness their motivational power to grow your business.
Fadi Zureick was a tactile kid growing up in Columbia, MD. Legos and K’Nex were the only toys for him. Between his fascination with how different objects interact and both his parents being engineers, Fadi had no choice but to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland. “I love starting from scratch and building something. It’s super gratifying to see what develops over time.”
The transition from mechanical engineering to data analytics platform development came when Fadi was working in the solar energy industry. He was drawn to BI’s capacity for creativity, seeing the whole picture and finding ways to maximize operational efficiency. “A fresh pair of eyes is the most valuable asset I can bring to a client, helping them find answers to questions they haven’t even thought of yet.”
When he’s not making the data tell a story, Fadi is a bit of a Renaissance man, equally comfortable playing soccer and the piano. But when he really wants to kick back, he watches sports, ALL the sports – baseball, basketball, soccer, football. . . Maybe don’t ask him about his fantasy football team this year though. It’s a bit of a sore subject.