Data StorytellingBY Kristina Cheamitru // Analytics Strategist
Essential tips to let your data speak for itself
You’re looking at a complex dashboard cluttered with statistics and charts, or a text-heavy PowerPoint slide filled with one-line data callouts, wondering, “what am I supposed to do with this information?”
As an analyst, we’ve all been there.
In a world where endless data points are at our fingertips, without a powerful data story, actionable insights are often harder to find.
That’s where data storytelling comes in.
Skilled data storytellers bridge the gap between data and insights to communicate complex findings to an audience. In other words, data storytellers will entertain their audience, balancing art and science to give their numbers a voice.
While the subject of presentations vary, every strong data story contains three key components:
Data – This is the foundation of your story – the supporting evidence if you will. Think of the data as your plot. In a traditional story, the plot is the sequence of events that provides the baseline, but we need a few more components to make our case.
Visualization – A clear visual helps your audience to easily absorb the data. In your data story, this is the climax. Here, we want to highlight the major turning point of your plot, which enlightens your audience to the key findings from your data.
Narrative – The narrative brings your story to life. It’s your opportunity to explain to your audience why the data matters and what they should take from it. In other words, the narrative is your main character. They bring emotion to the plot, captivating your audience as the story unfolds.
Alone, these 3 components couldn’t possibly communicate the full data story – just as you can’t have a literary story without a plot, climax, or the main character. When you combine strong data with effective visuals and a clear narrative, the outcome produces influential insights that have the power to drive change.
Strategies to Help Build Your Data Story
Figuring out how to communicate your findings can be overwhelming at first, but the following tactics can help to break it down:
Define your audience – Knowing your audience is an essential starting place that guides the entire presentation. For example, an executive-level audience may only have time to hear the high-level significance of your data and needs to understand overall business impacts. A manager, however, may be looking for more detailed recommendations for actions they can take at a granular level. The more you know about your audience’s goals upfront, the more value you’ll bring to the presentation.
Craft the main idea – If you only have 3 minutes to explain your data story, what would you say? That outcome is your main idea. Think of this as an elevator pitch, but for your data. Every point in your story should tie back to this pitch, creating a seamless and cohesive experience for your audience.
Outline your story components – Once you know who you’re presenting to, and you know the main idea, then you can start outlining. Storyboarding is a great technique to structure how the components of your story will work together. Another tip here: do it low tech! Starting with an old fashioned whiteboarding strategy ensures you won’t get caught up in making visuals “look good,” but will concentrate on conveying the message effectively.
Remove the noise – With vast amounts of data available, it’s easy to get caught in the weeds and overwhelm your audience with loosely relevant data. Your story should only include data that directly supports the main idea. Be exclusive and ruthless in the data you choose to include. This will focus your audience’s attention on the core objective of your presentation.
Work on the epilogue – An avid reader will tell you that great books begin with a prologue, as it gives the primary take away up front and sets the tone for any presentation or review. Equally as important, the best books have an epilogue to tell you what happens when the plot finishes. Your data story is no different. The epilogue, in this case, includes the next steps and recommendations. Based on your findings and the data you’ve presented, what actions should your audience take? Unlike in literature, the more predictable your epilogue, the better! If your audience can guess the next steps based on your presentation, you’ve told the story right.
While uncovering key insights from data is a critical skill, communicating those findings clearly and efficiently is a crucial counterpart. And when you master both? That’s when your insights have the power to drive truly transformative change.