Hearing a story is the most effective way for individuals to remember things. Whether you’re relaying the details of a first date with your spouse or sharing how you felt watching a movie that had a tremendous impact on you as a child, telling a story is a primary way we help others remember and understand things. The biggest takeaway is the story. The most helpful tool is the context.
When sharing information with key decision-makers, the principles of good storytelling are essential when utilizing data as part of your narrative. If you want to find a link between marketing and sales, KPIs and efficiency, or customer preference and revenue, your best bet is to use a data-driven storytelling approach.
What Does It Mean to Tell a Story with Data?
Telling a story with data means creating a narrative to explain why and how data has changed over time.
You’ve likely heard the notion of “show, don’t tell.” This practice generally refers to sharing information in a way that allows others to understand quickly through visualization. Showing instead of telling aids your audience as they endeavor to understand your key takeaways.
Now you need to know how to tell a story with data. Your first step is to establish a narrative. It’s best to craft a story that you believe will resonate with your audience and cultivate the fertile ground necessary to allow the data and takeaways to take root.
Articulating the story arc will help you make sure that your information is organized and engaging. The most critical factor in telling a successful data-driven story is to ensure your audience can easily follow the narrative. Data lends itself to visualization in the form of charts, tables, infographics, and the like, allowing you to share many data points that your audience can quickly digest. You must also balance the amount of data in your narrative. Too much data, and your audience will be overwhelmed. With too little data, your audience finds it difficult to arrive at the conclusion you’re hoping for.
The Importance of Data Storytelling
The use of data storytelling is vital for many reasons. First, it’s easier for people to remember information when you present the narrative in the proper context. Second, audiences can absorb data more efficiently by including other types of visuals such as charts or infographics. Finally, data storytelling helps you create a positive experience for your audience by keeping them engaged throughout the presentation. If they can identify with the story and understand how it impacts their specific situation, it’s easier for them to remain engaged.
Good storytelling will resonate with your audience during the presentation, after the presentation, and when your audience must retell the story to others. Good stories go viral, and that’s the impact you should hope to have with your data.
How To Tell a Compelling Data Story
The primary goal of using storytelling to share data is to help the audience understand your message. When your audience understands your message, the next logical step is to ensure buy-in. Buy-in is important, especially when engaging with senior executives, key decision-makers, internal and external stakeholders, and customers.
An essential facet of storytelling is knowing your audience and tailoring your stories in a way that resonates with them while also addressing their pain points. The more specific you can be when telling a story, the better.
Here are several ideas for telling a compelling story using data:
Incorporate good data
If you hope to tell compelling stories, your data must be compelling. It also helps to have multiple data sets for your audience to compare differences in the proper context.
Make it relevant
Telling a good story with data means helping your audience see how it relates to them. Your data should be pulled from areas your audience can identify with and understand. For example, when talking to marketers about conversion rates, use specific examples comparing high and low-performing marketing campaigns where the goal is to emulate the high performers.
Create the proper narrative
Every compelling story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The narrative you share with your audience should consist of the same structure. The beginning includes the pain point or challenge identified and supported by data (i.e., a chart illustrating where we fall short). The middle consists of the solution that addresses the pain point (a graph highlighting promised improvement). The end shows the results of implementing the proper solution and the benefits realized (illustration highlighting other departments or organizations that have implemented the solution and found measurable success).
Incorporate compelling visuals (charts, graphs, graphics/infographics, road maps)
As mentioned above, charts, graphs, road maps, and other visuals help your audience rapidly digest and understand specific messages you’re hoping to convey. According to MIT, our brains can process images as fast as 13 milliseconds, so using compelling visuals will help tell your data-driven story more effectively.
Identify trends and opportunities
Identify and explain trends and opportunities that help your audience further contextualize the message. Highlighting organizational opportunities available through a new sales approach is worth sharing but explaining that 75% of high-performing organizations have begun using that software over the last two years is even better.
Arrive at conclusions and make recommendations
Your story should have a clear ending with actionable items for the audience. Include takeaways and next steps, asking your audience to consider the data and decide.
What Not to Do
While there are several things you should do when telling a story with your data, there are also several things you should not do.
Don’t use bad, incomplete, or old data
You must use current or relevant data. Data doesn’t lie. If your audience doesn’t receive the benefit of accurate data, erroneous decisions are inevitable.
It’s important to remember that there are multiple ways of looking at numbers. Try to be transparent with your data in the proper context so your audience is not misled.
Don’t use visuals that are not relevant
Visuals are great, but they must be used in proper context. If potential visuals are too complex and do not pertain to your narrative, it’s best to leave it out.
Don’t be inconsistent
Data storytelling tells a compelling, comprehensive story supported by the data. If you use data for the least essential elements of your story, you must also use it for the most critical components of your narrative. Too many peaks and valleys will frustrate your audience.
By combining best practices in analysis, data visualization, and storytelling, you set the stage for highly effective, always engaging presentations. A data-driven storytelling approach is a practice you should use when communicating complex ideas, soliciting buy-in, and ensuring better decision-making among leadership at every level of the organization.