Telling A Powerful Story With Data


Throughout the history of mankind, storytelling has been a cornerstone of the human experience. In India, the craft of storytelling hails from a rich tradition that has been expressed in different ways over millennia - through dance, music, words, texts, and up till recently, through digital mediums such as social media.

From Amul’s historic White Revolution in India’s pre globalization era to Google’s brilliant Reunion ad campaign, we have seen how businesses have adopted the best of storytelling techniques not just to inform and educate their stakeholders but also to inspire them toward ideals even bigger than themselves. Stories make information worth paying attention to, and using stories, people can help create a common ground of shared experiences that also make abstract concepts more tangible.

Today, storytelling techniques are turning a new page. Just as digital platforms have given birth to engagement through social media, so has the prevalence of big data led to the emergence of data-driven storytelling among journalists and business leaders alike.

Business communication traditionally relies on detailed reports and presentations that are usually lengthy and cluttered with texts, charts and graphs. To get through these reports quickly, executives and meeting attendees often ask for executive summaries, reports and one page briefing memos. Unfortunately, in most cases, these summaries do not offer the necessary depth and options for readers to ask the questions that matter to derive the needed insights. So, how can readers have their story and read it too (pun intended)?

The answer lies in data-driven stories, which take advantage of the power of storytelling to establish context, expectations and relevance in a way that speaks naturally to the way we best consume information - visually.

Research has shown that visualized data enables readers to not only grasp a large quantity of facts quickly, it also helps readers to retain that information easily. By taking data off spreadsheets and onto a canvas of visualizations and dashboards, one can more easily arrive at deep insights resulting from quick observation of trends and scenarios from data.

Here are 5 points to keep in mind to get started on data-driven storytelling:

Focus on the narrative: Irrespective of analysis methods and the means of how one plans to get his/her story across to one’s audience, the fundamental ingredients to a great story remains the same: a strong narrative. In the context of business, strong narratives can be found in the likes of a ‘setting-challenge-resolution’ story-telling framework.

- Keep it simple and succinct: Good stories present findings in terms of concepts that the audience can identify with and understand easily. The analysis also doesn’t have to be long and complex and keeping it concise will help to highlight the most important points. As Albert Einstein famously quoted, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” From a visual standpoint, remember that crowding too many visual elements into one space reduces the visual impact of all elements. Less is more.

- Let the data speak for itself: While trying to create a compelling data story, having relevant, well curated and analysed data sets is key. Since data forms the backbone of your findings and the story, it is absolutely crucial that the data is well researched, segmented and presented in a form that speaks for itself. Avoid using too much data and focus on only that information which is central to the story.

- Structure and flow: Structure is the internal framework that holds the story together while flow is the order in which you arrange the information and style it to present the information to your audience. For a good data story, both are essential and it is advisable to work on a basic guideline before starting the project to ensure none of the crucial information is missed out and it’s conveyed to your audience in the most fluid manner that adds to the narrative.

Use data visualization to complement the story: Data visualization can be used to complement the story and elucidate facts and findings in a way that can be assimilated easily and quickly. Modern data analytics tools now come with a myriad laundry list of visualizations and so it’s vital that you select the one that is best for representing the information at hand. Studies show that the human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text. A good data visualization should have the ability to show you something that you wouldn’t have seen only by looking at the data and presents data in a way that the viewer can explore and understand.

These tips help you in kick-starting your journey of effectively using data stories to communicate with your stakeholders, decision makers and customers. While data will tell your audiences what’s happening, stories will help to convey why it matters.