What is Data Storytelling?


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Researchers believe storytelling became part of our culture before language was fully developed. It’s how we communicate information to our co-workers, friends and family. It drives the film, television, and publishing industries. It’s a powerful tool, and essentially how humans connect with one another.

Yet for too many of us who’ve focused on math and science, rather than literature and art, our storytelling skills peak at a young age. While creative writing is a focal point of elementary education, instruction wains as students enter secondary school. This is long before we’ve been introduced to advanced graphs and statistics in late high school or early college.

In data analysis, effective storytelling is essential to making business data relevant and actionable. Yet many analysts lack an effective conceptual understanding as to how stories and visuals are essential to the art of persuasion. Stand-alone statistics, graphs, and visualizations are not enough to communicate key insights and action points. When presenting data, charts must be supplemented with a narrative, as well as visual techniques to highlight important information.

Data storytelling, which we’ll define as using data, visualizations, and narrative to explain a phenomenon or influence a business decision, is contingent upon 2 key factors: understanding the audience, and using the appropriate techniques to convey a message.  When it comes to crafting an effective story, an analyst first needs to ask themself – who is this message for? Am I speaking to the executive team, or to the sales and marketing team? What are their goals? What information do I think would be most valuable to them based on their roles? What are the next steps I think they should take, and how can I hone my message to influence their decisions? Am I trying to get my team to dig deeper into the information, or am I trying to guide them toward a specific course of action?

Visual techniques are equally important when it comes to influencing decisions. To ensure that data visualizations are actionable, an analyst needs to efficiently present information in a way that demonstrates the key takeaways clearly. Without the appropriate visual techniques, such as using the right chart types, colors, annotations, and call outs (to name a few), it can be difficult for stakeholders to see growth or decline, as well as to isolate important anomalies or patterns.  

If your team neglects to think strategically about the message they’re trying to convey with data, it’s likely your findings and recommendations won’t make an impact. Whether you lead an analytics, marketing, sales, or digital team, or work directly with executives, knowing how to craft an effective story with data will enable you to better guide your organization to make informed decisions.

For more information and essential tips for understanding your audience and using the most effective techniques to convey your message for data storytelling success, download Dashboard Harmony: How to use data storytelling to deliver actionable reports. An insightful guide from Sweetspot & our friends at MaassMedia.

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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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