How to Become a Better Data Storyteller - Part 1
Updated: Oct 4
Let's start with the basics:
Why do we need data storytelling?
My answer is pretty straightforward:
We need data to make informed decisions.
We need storytelling to make our results memorable, inspiring, and persuasive.
So, if we want to move our audience from inaction to action, we need
There are many, many components that go into crafting a data story. I might one day write a book on this topic. But, for now, I'll discuss data storytelling in two parts:
Part 1 (this post) will walk you through 3 core ingredients for powerful data storytelling
Part 2 will discuss the storytelling structure
1. Befriend Your Data
Yes, you read that right. Don't look at the data as being an abstract series of numbers. Or a summary of words, in the case of qualitative data. Instead, understand how those numbers or words came to be.
Let's assume that you are looking at survey data that shows how satisfied patients were with a particular service or device. Put yourself in the shoes of those patients. Were patients likely to answer the survey questions truthfully? Were the questions too personal? Or potentially misleading?
A recent example comes from "The Bleeding Edge," a Netflix documentary about the medical device industry. The documentary describes how data on Essure, a birth control device for women, was collected during clinical trials. After wearing the device for about 18 months, the women who participated in the clinical trial were asked to fill out a survey. Although patients had complaints about the device, such as pain, the nurses collecting the data re-framed the survey questions or crossed out the patients answers altogether. This had devastating implication. It led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving the medical device based on misleading (in same cases even falsified) information.
The lesson? Don't believe the data at face value. Otherwise, your data storytelling might be misleading.
Here's an excerpt of the "The Bleeding Edge" documentary. I was not able to find it online, but I recorded it with my phone.
Imagine you're going to see a ballet play. You're having a great time, enjoying the performance when, all of a sudden, the orchestra starts playing a piece that's totally unsynchronized with the ballet dancers. Ugh, that felt like someone just scratched your ears, didn't it? The same concept applies to the business world when presenting data in front of an audience. Our verbal and visual communication need to be in perfect synchrony. Unfortunately, many times, they are not.
Here's an example that I recorded where the verbal and visual communication are synchronized. Notice how the cursor, the words, and the visuals are all contributing to building the story simultaneously.
Do you see how, without synchrony, you risk losing your audience's attention? As you are presenting point A on your graph, your audience might be looking at point B. If you lose your audience's attention, then you lose the opportunity to persuade or inspire them. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.
Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite movies, Black Swan. Notice the absolute synchrony between the orchestra and the ballet dancers. It's simply spectacular.
3. Words Matter. Tone Matters Too
Whether written or spoken, words matter. Let's say that you are ready to send a report via e-mail. What is one element that you should not forget? Think about it in reference to your day-to-day work.
My suggestion? Annotations!
Annotations help your audience understand the context around numbers. Annotations also ensure that you are in control of how your charts are interpreted. Here's an example of data visualization without and with annotations.
If your presentation is in-person (or, nowadays, on zoom), words matter. Tone matters too.
Use adjectives. Adjectives have two roles. First, they engage your audience. Second, they provide a better understanding of the charts that you are describing. For example, use "most" and "least" for a ranked bar chart.
Use action verbs. Action verbs are dynamic. They engage your audience and pull them into your story. For example, use "declined" or "climbed" for a line graph that shows how something evolved over time.
Be concise. Everyone is busy. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible.
Use simple language. When you spend hours and hours reading or researching a topic, it is easy to fall into the trap of using language that's ambiguous for your audience. Be aware of this pitfall and keep your language simple.
In verbal communication, tone is as important as words. Pause where you think your audience should also pause and contemplate. Increase the speed of your speech when you want to make your audience alert about the data point that you are referencing.
While there are many techniques that you can use to elevate your data storytelling, I suggest starting with the ones described here: befriend your data, synchronize, and be thoughtful about how you use words and tone. These 3 lessons can be the foundation for more tips and tricks that you'll learn along the way.
If you want to learn more, check out our workshops, which dive deeper into the concept of data storytelling and incorporate hands-on exercises.