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  • Writer's pictureAdmond Lee

Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

For anyone who needs to communicate something to someone using data

So you want to create better storytelling with data. And you also want to create better data visualization that leads to better understanding from people and potentially some actionable insights.

If the answer is YES, then keep reading.

In one of my articles — 5 Lessons I Have Learned From Data Science In Real Working Experience, communication skills and storytelling are among the two lessons that I hope I could have realized and learned before joining real working environment, because these two lessons are so important — and I really mean it.

Not long ago I happened to read a book — Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals — written by Cole, founder of storytelling with data as well as highly sought after speaker and author on the topic of communicating effectively with data.

Having been frustrated with overwhelming online resources on how to improve your storytelling with data, the ambiguity of explanation and the generality of different approaches simply left me stagnant at the same point.

Why this book but not others?

Empathy and Simplicity.

Throughout the reading journey with the book, Cole really taught me how to communicate effectively with data — empathy — and the very core and fundamentals of data visualization — simplicity.

The best part is it taught me how to capture audience’s attention without losing the most important parts of my data.

Well, rather than elaborating my lessons learned from the book, I decided to show you the steps (more detailed illustration can be found in the book) on how to turn your data into high-impact visual stories that stick with your audience.

Let’s get started!


1. Understand the Context

Focus on explanatory analysis (NOT exploratory analysis) and communication.

For me, understanding the context is all about being empathetic to the situational needs of your audience in the form of business context. You have to really put yourself into their shoes to see where they’re coming from and try your best to answer their questions with storytelling.

In the book itself you’ll understand how to turn your data into information that can be consumed by an audience. Below are a brief overview of what it looks like:

  • Who am I communicating to?

  • What do I want my audience to know or do?

  • How can I use data to help make my point?

2. Choose an Effective Visual

Nowadays, there are so many types of graphs overflowing in common business settings, but only minority of them will only suit the majority of your needs.

In fact, you might not even need graphs to display your data in certain cases — just a simple text will work.

Therefore, choosing an effective visual is nothing but being selective of the visuals that you choose. Some commonly used visuals (as suggested by Cole) in business settings include simple text, tables, heatmap, point and line graphs, bars, as well as areas.

The description here is by no means exhaustive and I highly recommend you to refer to the book for more details. Believe me, you’ll love it!

3. Eliminate Clutter

Yes, Clutter. Period.

Very often we’re so in love with our self-created visuals, only to realize (or maybe not) that there are so many visual elements in a single graph which occupy space but don’t increase understanding of our audience.

Humans’ brains have a finite amount of mental processing power

Clutter only makes visuals more complicated and hard to understand and thus, audience’s attention might wander off without us noticing, simply because we’re in a state of self-deception that our graph works just as it is meant to be.

You’ll find various practical approaches to remove clutter step-by-step in the book by examining the needs of every single visual element.

Remember the work — Empathy? Every visual element should fulfil the purpose of serving the needs of audience.

4. Draw Attention Where You Want It

Once we have chosen an effective visual and removed all unnecessary clutter, this is the point where we need to figure out how to draw our audience’s attention.

To draw our audience’s attention is to understand how they see and interact with our visual communications, often subconsciously.

Cole introduced a powerful tool — Preattentive Attributes to do this. Her exceptional way of explaining complicated subject is one of the main reasons why I love this book.

5. Think Like a Designer

Think of your data visualizations as your products.

By crafting your own visuals — Voilà! Now you become a designer. Great. Let’s move on.

Thinking like a designer in different lens is being well aware of how data visualizations communicate with your audience and how the audience interacts with your visuals. The interaction between these two points is what makes an excellent piece of data visualization.

There are 3 key elements discussed in the book, namely affordances accessibility, and aesthetics. Also, more strategies are also taught in the book to gain audience acceptance of your visual designs.

6. Tell a Story

Here comes the storytelling part in the last step.

Imagine you have just watched a great and captivating movie with an excellent storyline. You got attracted by the story that took your on a memorable journey and eventually evoked an emotional response from you.

Few months or even one year later, you could still remember the storyline vividly.

Personally, I like to watch movies as I believe that movies are the reflection of our life, perhaps in a more exaggerated narrative manner — but lessons remain the same.

Use stories to engage our audience emotionally in a way that goes beyond what facts can do.

Keep it simple.

Be authentic.

Don’t communicate for yourself — communicate for your audience instead.

The story is not for you; the story is for them.

If you’ve been good with data visualizations but struggling with storytelling. Then this book is for you. It teaches you how to construct a story from the beginning to the end with a narrative structure.

Besides, there are some useful techniques to make your story even more clearer to audience.


Final Thoughts

Thank you for reading.

At the end of the day, insights obtained from data are always the same (provided the insights are correct).

But what makes the insights different is the impact and actionable plans derived from the insights. And this difference boils down to how you communicate your data insights through great storytelling.

You can get the book here!

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave your comments below. Till then, see you in the next post!

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