Humans have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been on this planet. Our stories connect us and help us make sense of the world. In his book “The Storytelling Animal,” Jonathan Gottschall says our love of narrative is what sets people apart from all other species. Now that our economy increasingly runs on data, it makes perfect sense that we humans need to storify all those facts and figures in order to really engage with them in a meaningful way.
Data storytelling is fun, compelling and involves pretty pictures (or data visualizations as my fellow analysts call them). It attracts attention and helps decision makers focus in and act on important insights. In my next blog post, I’m going to give you tips for telling juicy data stories. But here in Part I, like any good storyteller, we need to make sure the scene is set with care. Before data can tell a story, it needs to be conscientiously prepped and responsibly analyzed.
UNDERSTAND YOUR DATA’S BACKSTORY
As I said in my last post, Business Intelligence Sans Perfect Data, you don’t need perfect data to “do” business intelligence. But you do need to know where your data is coming from and be aware of gaps and outliers. Basically, we’re talking about conducting a data audit to learn the history, evolution and accuracy of your data. Is it fit for the job you want it to do? What systems of record have been used? Were there tech migrations or business transformations that may have caused holes or skewed data? You need a good sense of where your data has been to determine where it is going. A transparent data backstory is critical to ensuring accurate analysis and avoiding inherently flawed insights.
DON’T FORCE THE DATA TO TELL A PREDETERMINED STORY
We all have our favorite stories, those ones that help us drift peacefully off to sleep at night: leads and conversions are up, profits are set to skyrocket. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a hypothesis into an analysis. You just have to be willing to accept that the hypothesis may be wrong. When you come in with a desired outcome, you automatically introduce bias into your analysis. The goal is to be insight neutral from the start. Don’t commandeer the story your data is trying to tell.
The human inclination to tell the story everyone wants to hear is exactly why data storytelling has its fervent naysayers. These data scientists might come off as killjoys, but they’re just reminding us that data isn’t to entertain; it’s to learn from and act on.
MAKE SPACE FOR THE STORY TO EVOLVE
When I’m developing a data analytics platform for a client, I think in terms of data haves, wants and needs. You don’t want to preordain the story, but you need a framework for data collection. Every company has business requirements, critical data you are already collecting. It just needs to be brought over or replicated. Then, there is the data you know you want. My job is to create a way to gather and deliver it. Finally, there’s data you need but don’t even know you need. A tech partner’s fresh perspective can uncover some of that (and what you may want to do with it) right off the bat, but additional KPIs and visualizations will reveal themselves over time as you dig deeper into initial findings.
Once you (a) know where your data is coming from and are aware of its preexisting issues, (b) check your inherent bias at the door, and (c) leave room for growth, you have set the stage for compelling data stories to unfold. Great data storytelling weaves together data, visualizations and narrative to inspire action. I’ll tell you how to do it . . . in next week’s post!
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.