Connecting the Dots with Data Storytelling


The value of storytelling can never be denied, irrespective of how fast technology evolves. Tomas Hunacek, product manager, Ataccama, explores the importance of data storytelling in engaging with the right audience and keeping them involved.

Throughout history, people have told stories for many reasons: to document the past, convey news, share life lessons or simply entertain audiences. The nature of storytelling has changed dramatically over the millennia, but it remains a vital part of the human experience, and for good reason – It’s an effective form of communication, and it can serve an important function even in today’s high-tech world.  

Most organizations now have access to so much data that it can be challenging to figure out insights and essential aspects to use and share that information strategically. That’s where data storytelling comes in. It puts the facts in context, organizing them in a logical storyline that reveals trends and relationships – in effect, connecting the dots. By packaging precise data within a compelling narrative, data storytelling helps us interpret information and harness it to make informed decisions.  

Move Beyond Visualization

Data storytelling sounds much like data visualization, but it goes much further. Data visualization uses visual elements such as graphs, charts and tables to present key facts. The at-a-glance format makes those facts more accessible and easier to grasp since viewers don’t have to sift through lots of text to find them. But visual data in itself doesn’t convey the whole story. 

Data storytelling uses those same visual elements but enriches given data points and puts them in context – with data storytelling, additional information is added on the top. We can add explanations of data, providing fundamental reasons why things happen, or we can define actions and next steps we should tackle; or we can provide a border picture for the data, for example, using a narrative – connected in a way that guides viewers toward the desired conclusion (rather than confusion). 

Here’s an example. A bar chart does a good job depicting the change in sales in a certain region over a certain time frame. But the chart simply presents the raw numbers. It doesn’t explain the reason for the increase or decrease. Say sales climbed sharply in Q1. Data storytelling would provide more information to clarify that, adding a second chart comparing headcount for the last few quarters. That comparison would reveal the branch hired more sales personnel at the start of Q1, a likely reason for the jump in sales. Then the question is: Was the investment worth it? A third chart could present an analysis of the higher personnel costs vs. the increased revenue. If the numbers showed that the cost/benefit ratio was favorable, management might also decide to increase staffing at other branches. This is how putting time and effort into data storytelling can very easily pay off. 

That said, when adding new data — especially information drawn from various sources — ensure you understand it deeply and that it’s standardized to avoid confusion. For example, make sure you’re comparing the same time periods, that decimals and percentages aren’t used interchangeably, and that dates and currencies (which vary by country) are used properly and consistently. 

See More: Crossing the Data Chasm: A Strategic Imperative

Create a Storyline

Developing a data story is easy if you build it step by step. Structure your story logically, answering not only questions that might reasonably occur when considering a given set of facts but try to think also about questions beyond the base concept. In the earlier example, for instance, viewers looking at a chart depicting the sudden increase in sales would wonder what caused it. The answer, in that case, would lie in the following chart detailing staffing changes. 

Keep in mind that you’re telling a story, so information should flow coherently, in the proper order. Slides and reports should logically follow the previous learnings and advance the story toward the desired conclusion. Be ruthless in cutting out nonessential data. More is not always better. You shouldn’t bombard your audience with so much information that they overlook the most important points. Providing adequate context and not information overflow is often the most challenging part.

Complexity is the enemy of clarity, so steer clear of overly elaborate presentations and data stories. Dense, complicated graphics are hard to digest at a glance, so consider using several consecutive charts rather than cramming all the detail into one. Crowded slides will only confuse the audience and obscure key facts, so allow enough white space so visuals can breathe and major points stand out. 

Highlight important points on a chart to provide compiled value. Text explaining what viewers see is better than uninformative labels: “Sales are up, but profits are down” tells viewers more than a label that simply says “Sales and profits.” Use color judiciously to enliven but not overwhelm the content. 

In general, opt for bar charts or graphs rather than pie charts, which take up a lot of space. Research shows that pie charts don’t display differences in the data being compared as well as bar charts and graphs, especially when complex data would require many small, hard-to-see slices. 

Tailor the story to Your Audience

Even the best data story in the world will fall flat if it’s not geared to your audience. They shouldn’t have to work hard to understand the numbers or grasp the underlying message. So tailor your story to suit your audience. Consider how much they know about the topic, how familiar they are with given data, how the information affects them, and how comfortable they are with the amount of detail and presentation style.

Making data accessible is especially important when a data story is shared with numerous departments across the organization, investors, or the Board of Directors. Each contingent might have a different level of understanding and view the facts as they pertain to their specific interests. Sometimes it’s easier to create multiple data stories rather than one for all.

An engaging, coherent narrative can keep the audience from losing focus — a plus when some viewers are remote or watching a recorded presentation at various times — and ensures that the message comes through succinctly and clearly to all viewers, regardless of who they are or when or where they see it. 

Remember, data clarifies information when used effectively and reveals trends and insights that support smart decisions. So unleash the power of storytelling. By following the pointers above, you can take the leap from presenting the bare facts to telling an engaging narrative that will resonate with viewers.

How are you enabling your brand to connect with your audience better with data storytelling? Tell us on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window . We’d love to know!