Whether we realise it or not, we’re bombarded with an onslaught of visual information every single day. From print advertisements and television commercials to stop signs and green lights, the world around us relays a constant stream of data and is often accompanied by some kind of visual representation to help us absorb it quickly. So how do companies and organisations communicate with their employees, clients, and stakeholders in the age of instant data gratification? The answer is simple: storytelling with data or in other words, data storytelling.
Spreadsheets and static reports show data, but narrative data visualisation tells a story. In other words, data in dashboards and spreadsheets only tell you what is happening. But, they don’t tell you why. The difference between the two is subtle but important.
Data storytelling provides the context your audience needs to see the connections between important trends. It draws users in and helps them turn raw data into usable information. Simply showing people numbers can’t accomplish this. Just like the data that surrounds us every day, data storytelling appeals to and is accessible to a wide audience, including those who aren’t as data-savvy as the people behind the reports. The best part is anyone can use storytelling with data to better their organisation; all you need are the right tools and a roadmap to start driving in the right direction.
How Does Data Storytelling Work?
Data storytelling doesn’t make you rip out anything you already have and start from scratch. It doesn’t require you to spend days or months configuring anything. It’s the fastest way to get everyone in your company focused on the right things and making better and faster decisions than ever before.
It’s more like a cultural shift to bring data understanding and action to everyone in your company that complements your data exploration and analytics efforts. It’s the personalised, easy experience that you have come to expect in today’s world. It’s a new way for your employees to become truly data-driven.
So what happens when you start using storytelling with data in your company? Let’s go through each step. Here’s how data storytelling helps both you and your team.
Step 1 – Instantly understand your data with plain stories instead of dashboards
What happens when you give your employees a way to instantly understand the data that matters to them instead of forcing them to analyse spreadsheets or explore dashboards? For most companies, it means a radically transparent, data-driven culture is created, better decisions are made, and goals are met and exceeded faster. When your employees want to understand the business or make a quick decision, you can use storytelling with data to facilitate that instantly. But it doesn’t have to end there. They can start the conversation with other team members if that’s what they want to do.
You can’t have a personal analyst writing reports for every single one of your employees. That’s why there are many business intelligence and data visualisation tools and platforms that make data storytelling work for your business.
Step 2 – Learn what you need to know to make better decisions
The typical approach to understanding data takes anywhere from minutes to days. Employees are poring over long spreadsheets, digging through dashboards, or simply asking their operations or analysis teams a million questions and waiting hours for a response.
With data storytelling, your team can read a personalised story that tells them what they need to know about their business, tailored specifically to their needs, automatically. Data storytelling technology is intelligent. It also naturally articulates the most important and interesting information to each employee.
Step 3 – Start the conversation with your team about how to take action
Stories are the only way to ensure that everyone actually understands data. Instead of requiring employees to seek out answers, storytelling with data ensures that relevant information is surfaced to your employees where they already are. Because data storytelling is literally stories, it enables things like commenting and collaboration, integrations with other communication tools like Slack and robust sharing capabilities via email.
What Makes A Good Data Story?
A good data story leverages three major components: Visualisation, Narrative, and Context.
No data visualisation is one-size-fits-all. It’s critical to choose visualisations that best represent the aim of each data set. For example, if you’re comparing two metrics, then a pie graph is significantly less effective than a bar graph. However, with the rise of self-service analytics platforms being implemented in all kinds of industries, more and more “non-technical” users are becoming familiar with creating data visualisations.
The narrative element is what distinguishes data stories from things like infographics, which is another popular method of communicating complex information in a digestible format. The easiest way to establish a narrative is to place your story on a timeline. Data stories must explore and attempt to explain how and why data changes over time, typically through a series of visualisations.
And like any story, data stories have a beginning and a middle. By giving your audience and forward trajectory, they can more easily process each data point within the context of the one preceding it. As they go along, this narrative shape can help reveal data insights and underlying patterns and trends. However, unlike traditional narratives, data stories should not have a set conclusion. Remember the goal of data storytelling. You want to elicit an action from your audience. To do this, your story should end by posing a set of options or questions.
Context is key in mitigating any confusion or misunderstanding of your message. As each data story begins with a problem or challenge, your story has context already built into it. But this isn’t always enough. Each data point should not only relate to the next, but it should complement or contrast it as well. It’s likely your story will contain data points on time, location, trend, significance, proportion, etc. As each of these strengthen the context of your story, they should be clearly noted as such.
Examples and Case Studies
Here are some examples of how companies like Spotify, Slack and Uber have all utilised the power of data storytelling to communicate with their customers.
If you aren’t familiar, Spotify is a Swedish-based audio streaming and media services provider. Since its launch in 2008, it has over 300 million users all around the world. In recent years, Spotify has sent annual recap stories to their customers called “<year> Wrapped”. These short stories pull interesting statistics for each user such as:
- The genres the user has listened to
- The amount of time the user has spent on Spotify in comparison to previous years
- Most streamed songs
The list goes on but this is an engaging way of communicating the value of their service instead of simply sending them an invoice or simple “thanks for using us”.
Slack is a business communication platform that offers (Internet-Relay Chat) IRC-style features, including persistent chat rooms (channels) organised by topic, private groups, and direct messaging. Slack uses data storytelling to create a different dialogue with customers each month at the time of invoicing. In place of sending an email with the invoice top and centre, Slack sends a visual story communicating the key ways its customer has utilised their service. This high-impact dialogue is shifting the conversation with customers.
Like Spotify, Uber has used data storytelling to communicate annually with its customers. In place of an annual recap email showing the total amount of money you have spent with Uber, they have shifted the conversation to show how much value the service has delivered to their riders. Showcasing personalised statistics of the user’s experience with the app, you immediately can see how much impact they’ve made.
Why Data Storytelling Should Matter To Businesses
Organisations can do a lot more with their data if they truly understand it. While businesses continue to invest dollars in business intelligence (BI) and analytics tools, they aren’t necessarily getting the information they need to improve business decision-making.
With more and more businesses invest in promoting a data-driven culture, storytelling with data is key to simplifying difficult or complex analytical concepts for decision-makers who are not familiar with data science concepts or practices. And without a clear understanding of the data, very little change can occur.
Now, remember, taking your reports to the storytelling level isn’t an overnight project; it takes careful planning and strategy. By using data effectively, you can say “goodbye” to raw statistics and “hello” to clear, practical, and actionable reporting. After all, old-fashioned reports grow stale in the time it takes to print them out. Live data through a dashboard, on the other hand, can keep your employees, team, and company continuously aware of their progress and in touch with trends that might influence their given roles and responsibilities.
At the end of the day, data storytelling means faster and more informed decisions so users can spend less time sorting spreadsheets and invest more time raising the bottom line.
To get started on creating your data stories, you don’t have to jump straight into any platforms or tools. You can simply start your data analytics journey with just Microsoft Excel. Check out our highly reviewed online course – Introduction to Data Storytelling: Narratives from Data.