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7 reasons why data storytelling is vital

The data may be compelling, but who’s listening to it? Data storytelling engages an audience and makes your point more memorable. But how do you tell better data stories?

How to tell a better story with your data – and why it’s important!

Data is big, it’s complicated, and us humans aren’t disposed to understand and interpret such complexity. We detest complexity – our brains are wired to search for the simplest answer.

While analytics help us to embrace the disorder and uncertainty of the data around us, what really engages us is a story. Successful companies have long been crafting ‘authentic’ stories to sell their products, entertain, and build brands. Of course, when it comes to data, we’re not usually focussed on entertaining an audience, we want to use our data to make a point; to offer direction or to sell an audience on a course of action. And that’s where the ability to tell stories with your data is key.

As data gets bigger and more complex, being able to tell a compelling story becomes more important than ever. For that reason, good storytelling is becoming an ever more vital component of our most trusted business intelligence (BI) tools.

The ability to tell a story is crucial to really engaging an audience. To do this, an effective data story must also combine setting, a timeline and a complementary narrative. But there are other, equally important factors to consider. Perhaps we should take a leaf from the storytellers themselves?

7 reasons why data storytelling is important – and how to tell a better story

“Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.” Author, Tim O’Brien

  1. Finding a focus – that irresistible story – is the key to telling an engaging story. Writer’s block hits even the best of story tellers. This is true of data analysis too, when faced with the mountains of available data. With the appropriate insight into the problems faced though, finding that story is made a lot easier. What challenges do the audience face? What questions do they need to answer? If your data supports such as story, then it starts to write itself.

“If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen.” Author, John Steinbeck

  1. Who are you telling the story to? At every twist in the tale, it’s important to remember your audience. Who are the key stakeholders? The audience bring their own knowledge, but assumptions of understanding can be dangerous. What is the context of the story? It’s not just the subject of the story that must be clearly set, the terminology used must also be appropriate; acronyms must be relevant to the audience. The only thing worse than a lack of engagement is a lack of understanding.

“Facts don’t persuade, feelings do. And stories are the best way to get at those feelings.”  Philosopher, Tom Asacker

  1. Make sure you have the right data to tell your story… While facts might not always persuade, it’s vital to ensure that you have the right data to support your facts. A flowing narrative can explain what’s happening and why particular insights are important, but is the data objective? And is the story balanced? While the story should add engagement, your data needs to bring the credibility.

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”  director, Jean Luc Godard

  1. It’s important to choose the appropriate visualisations. Visuals – charts, graphs, maps – help the audience see instantly trends in the data, and spot patterns that they might otherwise miss. Not all visuals are story-telling, though, some are story forming – which returns to an assumption of knowledge. When visuals are applied to data, they should enlighten the audience to insights in the data.

“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” publisher, Michael Shermer

  1. Beware of spurious correlations. You have the right data, but are you interpreting in correctly? You may subscribe to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but if you torture data enough, it will confess to anything.

“If you can depict situations and explore life in a truthful way and explore areas of grey – because that’s where the truth lives – in an objective way, I think it’s a satisfying sweet spot with storytelling.” Academy Award winning editor, Christopher Rouse

  1. So, you’ve successfully engaged your audience. But now they want more. They want to drill down to the insights that are most important to them. The next chapter should allow a deeper interrogation of the data. Now that you’ve got them hooked, allow your attentive audience to ask their own questions of the data; to tell their own stories even; or continue the story themselves. Self service analytics and automated reporting seen in today’s BI tools often encourage this interaction.

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”  Dr Brene Brown

  1. Stories teach and explain, they create emotion and entertain us. Ensure that your data tells a story that engages, influences, and drive change too – helping the customers/ shareholders/ employees live happily ever after!
Photo of Gordon Laing

Gordon Laing

Content Marketer, Barrachd, part of Capita

Having spent more than a decade in business journalism and digital communications, Gordon joined Barrachd's team in Edinburgh two years ago to champion the industry-leading data analytics solutions created by Barrachd.

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