Data Storytelling

Data storytelling is a method of visually presenting data to make it more understandable and easy to digest. Visualizations such as charts and graphs guide users toward a conclusion about their data and empower them to make a decision based on that conclusion.

How does storytelling work through visualizations? Let’s start with our brains. How the brain best learns and retains information is reliant on understanding how it processes the information coming in. As we see information, it forms a visual pattern so that we quickly draw attention to key observations.

So ideally, it makes sense that users can grasp the meaning of data when it is displayed in visual form, rather than spreadsheets or numbers scattered on a document. As you think about it, you’ll soon realize that most numbers should always be presented in context. For example, sitting alone, 6.2% can literally mean almost anything. But taken in context, explained by story, not only does it mean something specific, it can move your audience to actually do something about it.

So the first rule of storytelling with data is find and present the context. This will almost always involve multiple series of numbers related to your data point. The second rule is to always remember you are speaking to an audience – and that audience is seeking to hear something that informs them, that moves them to action when necessary, and that reassures them when all is well.

If you can get a tight focus for that audience, then you can narrow your story and tailor it just for their needs. For a broader audience, you’ll want to accommodate a wider spectrum of understanding. This can be done with multiple charts, drill downs, dense information displays, etc. There are a number of viable ways to show multiple-variable data.

But the most important thing is to simply ask your audience, “What information do you need from me and what form do you need it in? What do you need or want to understand about this data?” Get them to draw it on a whiteboard, or lead them through a short example or two.

It can help to think of your BI dashboard the way a screenwriter thinks of a storyboard: A progression of data and images that leads the viewer from a beginning to an end. And like any good storyteller, you develop a story over time, with multiple drafts, and much editing.

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