September 8, 2022

Data Storytelling: What It Is And Is Not

Data Storytelling: What It Is And Is Not
September 8, 2022

Over the past five years, data storytelling has received increasing attention from leaders, data experts, and business professionals. It has long been associated with the disciplines of data visualization and data journalism. Recently, it has been highlighted as a must-have data skill. Different vendors such as Tableau and Power BI have even touted it as a key feature or capability of their data visualization platforms. You’ve probably seen a variety of data communications—from infographics to dashboards—being called “data stories.” 

With the term being used so many different ways, it can be difficult to know exactly what data storytelling is—and what it is not. This article aims to clarify what data storytelling is, so more people can focus on taking full advantage of it in their organizations.

What is data storytelling?

In a simple definition, data storytelling is an effective way of communicating insights by combining narrative with visuals. When I first started presenting on data storytelling nearly a decade ago and started laying the foundation for my book, Effective Data Storytelling, I developed the following diagram that highlights its three core elements: data, narrative, and visuals.

A venn diagram showing the intersections of data, narrative, and visuals.

Data is the foundation of every data story. If you’re simply adding a few facts or figures to an existing narrative, it’s just a story—not a data story. When you analyze data and uncover a key insight, a data story helps you explain the meaning and significance of the insight to other people.

Narrative is the structure of your data story. It’s not merely about the words or context that are used to explain the data, but how you organize the information into a meaningful and engaging storyline. In most cases, you’re going to need to string together multiple data points or charts to tell your story. The narrative structure is what helps you decide what information to share and in what order.

Visuals are the scenes of your data story. When the data is complex, visualizing it in data charts helps the audience to see things—anomalies, patterns, and trends—they might not otherwise see. Through the effective use of data visualizations, diagrams, and images, you can enlighten your audience’s minds to new perspectives. 

A data story doesn’t just happen on its own—it must be curated and prepared by someone for the benefit of other people. When you effectively combine the right insights with the right narratives and visuals, you communicate data in a manner that can inspire change. Your data stories can help other people to understand a problem, risk, or opportunity in a meaningful way that compels them to act on it. In an expanded definition, data storytelling is a persuasive, structured approach for communicating insights using narrative elements and explanatory visuals to inform decisions and drive change.

Why is data storytelling important?

Insights are valuable and often difficult to find in data. You don’t want to waste them simply because they were misunderstood, ignored, or forgotten by an audience. You want to maximize the impact each new insight can have on the organization, which means sharing it in a manner that will catch people’s attention and inspire them to act.

For example, knowing that a change to your sales promotions could increase sales by 30 percent is worthless unless you make an adjustment to the campaigns. If decision-makers don’t understand how the change could improve things or aren’t convinced the changes are necessary, the promotional insight won’t lead to improvements. 

Neuroscientists have discovered the human brain reacts differently to stories than it does to pure facts. People hear statistics, but they feel stories. And with emotion playing a critical role in the decision-making process, storytelling helps us to connect with our audiences on an emotional level and share the data in a manner that’s easier for their brains to process. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt stated, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” When you have important insights to share, data storytelling offers three cognitive advantages over traditional reporting:

  1. More memorable. If you want your insights to catch the audience’s attention and be recalled more readily, stories outperform statistics. In a study done by Stanford professor Chip Heath (Made to Stick author), 63 percent of subjects could remember stories but only five percent could remember any statistics. Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us, and a narrative helps us to process and retain new information.
  2. More engaging. Stories have an interesting effect on us. When people listen to stories, they enter a trance-like state that psychologists called narrative transportation. In this state, we’re more open-minded and less skeptical or critical. Neuroscientist Uri Hasson found a unique bond or connection forms between a storyteller and their audience called neural coupling. The brain waves of both parties mirrored each other during the telling of a story, enabling a stronger comprehension of the information being shared. 
  3. More persuasive. Stories are more persuasive than statistics. In a Carnegie Mellon study, researchers asked students to donate some of the earnings from a paid survey to a charity. They tested two versions of a brochure on the charity and discovered the story version outperformed the statistics version by more than double the average donation ($2.38 versus $1.14). Neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s research found people who listen to stories have heightened levels of two key hormones. First, cortisol—a stress hormone—maintains the listener’s attention. Second, oxytocin—an empathy hormone—makes the audience connect with the storyteller and want to act (or donate).

When facts alone can be forgettable, dry, and uninspiring, we need a more effective way of communicating them. Fortunately, our brains respond differently to storytelling. When you combine your data insights with narrative and visuals, they are easier to recall, more compelling, and more motivating.

As behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow author) said, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” By telling a good data story, you help people to make better decisions and drive action that can lead to positive change.

What isn't data storytelling?

After establishing what data storytelling is, I’d like to help explain what it is not. Because data storytelling has been misrepresented in a multitude of ways—some of which are partially wrong or entirely misleading—I feel it’s helpful to examine each misconception to understand why it’s incorrect. My goal is to reduce the general confusion and, by doing so, further strengthen what data storytelling is in people’s minds.

  • Descriptive commentary. Some people view data storytelling as simply commentary that accompanies charts that describes the information being displayed. Data storytelling extends well beyond just describing data—the what—and delves into the why to enlighten people’s minds. While calling out unusual anomalies, patterns, or trends in the data may be interesting, you have an incomplete data story if you can’t explain why they occurred.
  • Added context. Context is essential in data storytelling as it can provide greater clarity into what’s happening. Having more background information is a step up from simply describing the data. However, merely providing more context doesn’t mean you have created a data story. Stories follow a narrative arc or structure where events are revealed in a specific sequence. Without a clear storyline, you don’t have a data story even with rich amounts of context.
  • Data charts. You’ll often hear people say, “Every chart tells a story.” However, this is simply not true. While some graphs may contain some interesting data and yield part of a data story, a single chart can rarely fully explain 'the why' behind an entire problem or opportunity. Frequently, you need multiple charts to dig into an issue and properly explain it. In addition, many charts are designed to aid in the exploration of the data, not the explanation of the data. We can’t expect charts alone to tell data stories when they weren’t intended for that purpose.
  • Data visualization (in general). Data storytelling is often used as a synonym for data visualization, especially when it adheres to best practices. However, just because you’re following data visualization best practices doesn’t mean you’re automatically telling a data story. Instead, your purpose might be to help people explore a particular data set, which isn’t storytelling. In addition, visualization is only one aspect of a data story. While data stories can actually exist without visuals (e.g., an audio data story featured in a podcast), data storytelling cannot happen without narrative.
  • Dashboards. Many people and analytics vendors continue to believe dashboards tell data stories. However, dashboards are primarily designed to help us monitor business performance and explore data sets. While dashboards can be useful in helping us identify potential insights, they can be equally cumbersome and insufficient for curating and telling focused, persuasive data stories. While many analytics platforms offer some automated storytelling capabilities, this technology is limited to only describing anomalies in the data, not explaining what caused them. 

Today, data storytelling is filling a critical gap in the analytics process between technology and people. By combining an increasingly essential resource—data—with a familiar and time-tested form of communication—storytelling, this emerging skill can help more people translate their insights into action. From a data literacy perspective, once an organization’s people are comfortable with reading and working with data, they should also learn how to communicate insights effectively.

As a human race, we’ve relied heavily on stories to convey and retain information. After thousands of years of storytelling, our brains are hungry for narrative and wired to respond to them. Data represents an ever-expanding source of new stories that can feed people’s innate desire to better understand the world around them. With proper training and practice, you and your team can master this crucial communication skill and use data to drive positive change within your organization. In the words of a truly great storyteller, Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

If you’d like to learn more about how you can enhance your team’s data storytelling skills, we’d love to chat with you about our customized data storytelling workshops

Brent Dykes Portrait
Author - Brent Dykes
Effective Data Storytelling Book Cover

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

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