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