May 25, 2022

100 Essential Data Storytelling Quotes

100 Essential Data Storytelling Quotes
May 25, 2022

I love a good quote. It's remarkable how some well-chosen words can capture the essence of something in a profound way. As I was writing my book on Effective Data Storytelling, I decided to add quotes to each heading and subheading. Once you commit to this sort of approach, there is no turning back. I ended up with exactly 100 quotes spread throughout my book between the headings and body copy.

With data storytelling being a fairly new topic, there aren't many direct quotes on the subject. The data-storytelling-related quotes I used in the book span the following 10 categories:

  1. Action (5 quotes)
  2. Analysis (13 quotes)
  3. Change (10 quotes)
  4. Communication (13 quotes)
  5. Data and insight (12 quotes)
  6. Decision making (6 quotes)
  7. Human perception (4 quotes)
  8. Story (17 quotes)
  9. Storytelling (11 quotes)
  10. Visualization (9 quotes)

I hope other data storytellers find this collection of data-related and storytelling-related quotes inspiring and helpful.

ACTION

In my view, one of the primary functions of a data story is to drive action. Without action, we can't generate value with our insights.

  • “Any powerful idea is absolutely fascinating and absolutely useless until we choose to use it.” – Richard Bach, author
  • “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” – Thomas A. Edison, inventor
  • “A story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.” - TV writer/producer Richard Maxwell and executive coach Robert Dickman
  • “The goal is to provide inspiring information that moves people to action.” – Guy Kawasaki, author & venture capitalist
  • “Without knowledge, action is useless, and knowledge without action is futile.” – Abu Bakr, religious leader

ANALYSIS

The process of analysis produces the insights that form the foundation of data stories.

  • “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”– Herbert A. Simon, economist and political scientist 
  • “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau, writer
  • “We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in… Make the audience put things together. Don't give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.” – Andrew Stanton, writer and director
  • “[Correlation] does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there.’”  - Randall Munroe, cartoonist
  • “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire, philosopher
  • “Asking the right questions involves domain knowledge and expertise, coupled with a keen ability to see the problem, see the available data, and match up the two. It also requires empathy, a concept that is neglected in most technical education programs.” – Hilary Mason and DJ Patil, data scientists
  • “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” – W. Edward Deming, management expert
  • “A person who is gifted sees the essential point and leaves the rest as surplus.” – Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and writer
  • “The fundamental task in data analysis is to make smart comparisons—we’re always trying to answer the question ‘Compared with what?’ [...] It always comes down to making and showing smart comparisons.” – Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • “We not only tend to compare things with one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable—and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily.” – Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author
  • “We are always looking at the things around us in relation to others.” – Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author 
  • “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” – Warren Buffett, American businessman
  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman, physicist

CHANGE

When we uncover an insight, it shifts our understanding in unexpected ways. Data stories will naturally challenge the status quo and lead to change if they are embraced.

  • “I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.” - Georg C. Lichtenberg, scientist
  • “Change is the only constant in life.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
  • “Change before you have to.” – Jack Welch, former GE Chairman and CEO
  • “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” – Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.” - Annette Simmons, author
  • “Stories change people while statistics give them something to argue about.” – Bernie Siegel, author and surgeon
  • “Resistance always has a story. Understanding the unique story of resistance to your new idea enables you to successfully negotiate a new story that is more attractive than the old one.” – Annette Simmons, author
  • “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” – George Bernard Shaw, playwright
  • “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., minister and civil rights activist
  • “When we dream alone, it’s just a dream. But when we dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.” – Brazilian proverb

COMMUNICATION

Data storytelling is a form of communication that incorporates facts and figures.

  • “The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.” – Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google 
  • “The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” – Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch, Greek philosopher
  • “How well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things but how well we are understood.” – Andrew Grove, American businessman
  • “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” – Henry Green, author
  • “If you want what you’re saying heard, then take your time and say it so that the listener will actually hear it.” – Maya Angelou, American poet and civil rights activist
  • “You've got to keep your finger on the pulse of what your audience is thinking and know what they'll accept from you.” – Dwayne Johnson, actor
  • “People react positively when things are clear and understandable.” – Dieter Rams, industrial designer
  • “There are two goals when presenting data: convey your story and establish credibility.” – Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • “The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.” – Aristotle, Greek philosopher
  • “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.” – Galileo Galilei, Italian astronomer 
  • “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.” – Mark Twain, author
  • “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” – Hans Hofmann, abstract painter

DECISION MAKING

Before any action can be taken, a decision must often be made. Well-crafted data stories can help people to reach sound decisions.

  • “I continue to be fascinated by the fact that feelings are not just the shady side of reason, but that they help us to reach decisions as well.” – Antonio Damasio, professor and neuroscientist
  • “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” – Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist
  • “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” – Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, behavioral economist, and author
  • “When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.” – Jonathan Gottschall, author
  • “When people read a refutation that conflicts with their beliefs, they seize on ambiguities to construct an alternative interpretation. Graphics provide more clarity and less opportunity for misinterpretation.” – John Cook, climate change professor and Stephan Lewandowsky, psychologist
  • “When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn't misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn't, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.” – Daniel Gilbert, psychologist

DATA AND INSIGHT

Data and insights are the building blocks of every data story.

  • “Data helps solve problems.” – Anne Wojcicki, entrepreneur
  • “Intuition is the use of patterns they’ve already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns.” – Gary Klein, psychologist 
  • “Data isn’t like your kids, you don’t have to pretend to love them equally.” – Amanda Cox, New York Times graphics editor
  • “An insight is an unexpected shift in the way we understand things.” – Gary Klein, psychologist
  • “If the statistics are boring, then you've got the wrong numbers.” – Edward Tufte, author and data visualization expert
  • “’Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently. ‘I can’t make bricks without clay.’” – Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author
  • “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author
  • “You can’t fix by analysis what you bungled by design.” – Richard Light, Judith Singer, and John Willett, education professors
  • “The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” – Richard Hamming, mathematician
  • “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.” – Nate Silver, statistician and author
  • “There are no facts, only interpretations.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher
  • “The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.” – Hans Rosling, physician, professor, and statistician

HUMAN PERCEPTION

As data storytellers, we must anticipate and understand how human beings perceive the data in our data stories.

  • “Heightened perception is the goal: becoming more aware of how you see, not just what you see.” – Michael Kimmelman, author
  • “What vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long—trying to understand what we’re looking at.” – Mary Potter, professor
  • “When data is presented in certain ways, the patterns can be readily perceived. If we can understand how perception works, our knowledge can be translated into rules for displaying information.” – Colin Ware, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • “Address the eye without fatiguing the mind.” – Alexander von Humboldt, German cartographer

STORY

Data stories without the narrative component are just a collection of pretty charts and nothing more.

  • “After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need the most in the world.” – Philip Pullman, author
  • “A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax.” Robert McKee, screenwriting expert and author
  • “You can’t beat a story with fact. You can only beat it with a better story.” – Shawn Callahan, author
  • “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” – Brene Brown, research professor and author
  • “Stories not only give us a much-needed practice on figuring out what makes people tick, they give us insight into how we tick.”  – Lisa Cron, author
  • “A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” – Mark Twain, author
  • “Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals, and moral compasses.” – Aleks Krotoski, psychologist and journalist
  • “If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” – Joseph Campbell, mythologist
  • "A lost coin is found by means of a candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story." - Anthony De Mello, author
  • “Good stories are driven by conflict, tension, and high stakes.” – William Landay, novelist
  • “Plot is what happens in your story. Every story needs structure, just as everybody needs a skeleton. It is how you 'flesh out and clothe' your structure that makes each story unique.” – Caroline Lawrence, author
  • “I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” ― Stephen King, author
  • “Conflict is to story what sound is to music.” – Robert McKee, screenwriting expert and author
  • “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” – William Archer, playwright
  • "Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form." - Jean Luc Goddard, film director
  • “One of the underestimated tasks in nonfiction writing is to impose narrative shape on an unwieldy mass of material.” – William Zinsser, writer
  • “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” – George Lucas, filmmaker

STORYTELLING

Data storytellers perform an essential role when they share insights in a manner that others can follow, understand, and appreciate.

  • “‘Good story' means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task...Your goal must be a good story well told.”—Robert McKee, screenwriting expert and author
  • “Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.” – Stephen Few, data visualization expert
  • “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” - Maya Angelou, American poet & civil rights activist
  • “Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.” – Tim O‘Brien, novelist
  • "Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today." – Robert McKee, screenwriting expert and author
  • “I'm a storyteller; that's what exploration really is all about. Going to places where others haven't been and returning to tell a story they haven't heard before.” – James Cameron, filmmaker and underwater explorer
  • “Every story is complicated until it finds the right storyteller.” – Anonymous
  • “Storytelling is ultimately a creative act of pattern recognition. Through characters, plot and setting, a writer creates places where previously invisible truths become visible. Or the storyteller posits a series of dots that the reader can connect.” – Douglas Coupland, novelist
  • “Data stories combine visualizations with narrative flow. This combination can breach the barriers between people and data, engaging the former and delving deeper into the latter.” – James Richardson, Research Director at Gartner
  • "The role of the storyteller is to awaken the storyteller in others." – Jack Zipes, folklorist
  • “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” – Hopi Indians

VISUALIZATION

Data visualizations play a critical role in helping us to communicate our insights in a clear and effective manner.

  • “Visual language has the potential for increasing human ‘bandwidth,’ or the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information.” – Robert E. Horn, professor & political scientist
  • “The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.” – John W. Tukey, mathematician
  • “Information graphics should be aesthetically pleasing, but many designers think about aesthetics before they think about structure, about the information itself, about the story the graphic should tell.” – Alberto Cairo, data journalism professor and author
  • “This is my favorite part about analytics: Taking boring, flat data and bringing it to life through visualization.” – John W. Tukey, mathematician
  • “Clutter and confusion are not attributes of data—they are shortcomings of design.” – Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • “The whole purpose of an analytical display is to assist the viewer’s cognitive task in looking at evidence.” – Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • "Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.” – Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert
  • "The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all.” – William Cleveland, statistician and author
  • “The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures.” – Ben Schneiderman, data scientist

If you have come across any other inspiring quotes on data storytelling, please share them with me. I'm always interested in acquiring new quotes, which may go into my next book.

Brent Dykes Portrait
Author - Brent Dykes

Effective Data Storytelling teaches you how to communicate insights that influence decisions, inspire action, and drive change.