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Data is Neutral. What You Say About It Isn’t.

By   /  March 30, 2015  /  No Comments

by Bree Baich

Storytelling is part of our natural dialog. Think about how often you’ve said something similar to the following:

[Sarcastically] “What’s his story?”

[Confused] “I don’t know the whole story, I need more information.”

[With conviction] “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

Yet, ask someone to tell you a story with data and their face reads like a white-knuckled thriller. How does something that comes so natural become something we shy away from?

In our upcoming session Visualize This. The Art of Data Storytelling, Kimberly Nevala and I will help our audience overcome their fears by explaining the ins and outs of data storytelling. We’ll define it, explain why businesses should care and walk through a 4-step process for putting a data-infused story together. Our goal is to help the audience give their data a voice through story. Because we know data is neutral, but what you say about it isn’t.

Here are seven best practices we’ll be sharing to help people get started:

  1. Have a purpose. People get stuck trying to decide what to share. Our recommendation is to start by identifying the core message. Start with the end in mind. Where do you want the audience to end up? And then stay on that road.
  2. Make it relatable. You wouldn’t share a story about fly fishing with an audience that lives in the desert – it wouldn’t resonate. You also can’t get someone to connect if they don’t care. Being human, sincere and having passion about the topic along with using current world examples, relatable to your audience, is the key to pulling them in.
  3. Craft a clear message – design with simplicity in mind. Less is more. The audience doesn’t need to know every nuance of your data to understand it. They also shouldn’t be required to decode the message. Keep it clear, keep it simple and keep that core message top of mind.
  4. Help the audience overcome obstacles. Author Nancy Duarte talks about how we love to process contrast – we’re conditioned for it. It’s what makes a presentation interesting. The important thing here is that offering contrast is what will help your audience see how your ideas will impact the decisions you’re asking them to make – whether new belief or new behavior.
  5. Use data to support your narrative. We aren’t asking you to fabricate data for your story, we’re telling you to utilize evidence-based data to support the message so your audience can see the results, impact and/or challenges for themselves.
  6. Use the right output – presentations, infographics, etc. Consider your audience and purpose before deciding on the output. One of my roles on the SAS Best Practices team is to deliver a monthly update [for our team] to the business. Based on audience and purpose, I deliver a video. In 5 minutes or less the company can see what our team has accomplished each month. At the end of the year I incorporated a year-end infographic that shows the impact our team has on the business. They didn’t need a year in review montage, they needed the data. Know your audience and purpose and use the technology and channels accordingly.
  7. Practice! If you do nothing else, practice. No one ever overcame their fear of storytelling without it.

We offered a few of our favorites, do you have any to add?

About the author

Interactive design, visual design, design strategy and multi-media storytelling are great descriptors of Bree Baich’s Transmedia Mastermind role for SAS Best Practices, a thought leadership organization at SAS Institute. For Bree it’s all about telling the right story and her unique perspectives lend themselves to fresh, innovative ideas. She’s built and delivered educational workshops on a diverse range of topics from data integration to best practice interactive workshops. Her most recent presentation is “Communicate Your Business Message through Visual Storytelling.”

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