As interest in data storytelling has continued to grow, some people may still question why it matters. One of the best justifications for developing this skill set came from Hal Varian, the Chief Economist at Google. In October 2008, the McKinsey consulting firm interviewed Varian to understand how he anticipated the Internet would challenge workers and managers in new ways.
After remarking how he felt statisticians would be considered a “sexy job” in the next ten years (yes, a few years before Thomas Davenport and DJ Patil labeled the data scientist as the “sexiest job” of the twenty-first century), Varian said the following:
“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.”
I’ve shared this quote on several occasions, and I’ve always viewed his statement as a one-two punch: first, the ability to find meaningful insights and then followed by the skills to communicate them effectively. Today, we’re already seeing how accurate this economist’s prediction was as data storytelling was recently listed as one of the top five most in-demand tech skills for 2023 on Forbes by Bernard Marr. As more people are expected to work with numbers on a regular basis, you’re only going to see the need for this skill increase.
When people highlight the benefits of data storytelling, they usually take the perspective of the individuals who are tasked with communicating insights—the data storyteller. However, there are two key participants in every communication—the sender and the receiver.
Just like in American football where you have a quarterback who passes the ball to various receivers—both roles are important to success in the game. Sometimes, you might be the sender—the one who is crafting and sharing a data story with others. The next time you might be in the audience as a receiver—listening to someone else’s data story. Remarkably, the benefits of data storytelling are twofold when you examine it from both the sender and receiver perspectives.
Today, many business teams are tasked with analyzing the data and then communicating their findings throughout their companies. Traditionally, this responsibility would be limited to the more data-intensive teams such as finance, accounting, operations, and analytics groups. However, as data usage has become more pervasive and widespread, individuals across other functional teams—sales, marketing, human resources, and so on—are discovering the need for better data storytelling skills.
Here are some of the main benefits that this skill can offer people who are tasked with communicating insights:
The one-to-many relationship involved with communicating insights means receivers will always outnumber senders. While the senders who communicate insights will benefit from data storytelling, the ultimate beneficiaries are the members of their audiences (receivers). As organizations seek to become more data-driven, they increasingly need everyone to embrace data in their respective roles and responsibilities. A simple but effective way to expose more of these individuals to data is through data storytelling.
The audiences on the receiving end of the data stories will gain from the experience in the following ways:
If you only consider the benefits of data storytelling from a singular perspective—either the sender or the receiver—you won’t fully appreciate how it can enhance your overall organization. Ultimately, when a data storyteller communicates his or her insights in a clear, compelling way that inspires others to act and create business value, everyone in the organization wins.
Former Apple founder, Steve Jobs, once said, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”
In our data age, those individuals who can weave meaningful insights into engaging data narratives will shape the trajectory of their organizations. However, success will come from both senders and receivers playing from the same playbook. This unique form of teamwork will build stronger relationships across different levels of your organization and lead to more victories on the playing field. If your firm hasn't yet embraced data storytelling, it may be time to start leaning into this critical skillset to gain its many positive benefits.
GAME PLAN: If you’d like to learn how you can become a better data storyteller, consider reading my book. If you want to learn how your team can become better data storytellers, check out my training workshop offerings. If you’d like to learn how your organization can develop a stronger data culture with data storytelling, download my free white paper.
Effective Data Storytelling teaches you how to communicate insights that influence decisions, inspire action, and drive change.