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Two Things I Know About Storytelling that Apply to Data Stories

By   /  April 27, 2015  /  No Comments

by Bree Baich

The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

As a corporate trainer, I’ve spent years telling stories to prompt action from my students. In doing so, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the impact on not just the business, but the students themselves, as they’ve applied changes and accomplished their goals.

This experience has taught me a critical lesson. To be a good storyteller you first need to understand how to drawn someone in; get them excited, curious and wanting more.

Here are two simple truths I keep top of mind while developing any story:

  1. We have to open gaps before we can close them.” (Thank you Heath Brothers for that one.)
  2. You can’t get anyone to listen until you give them a reason to care.

You open the minds of your audience by getting them curious. Equally (and possibly more) important telling stories – even data stories – requires vulnerability. You have to be you. You have to allow yourself to be human.


Recently, I co-delivered a session with my peer, Kimberly Nevala. She’s an engineer and I’m a storyteller. The combination works because we’re able to easily show how speaking different languages can be confusing. We kicked off our session with a question that I’m certain had our audience thinking, “What did I sign up for?”

Kimberly asked, “Do you know what I did last night?” Yep, there it is, I can tell your mind (like our audience) is running in all directions. The possibilities are infinite. But the answer, shown below, was simple. Assuming you, like Kimberly, are an engineer.

data story blog 1

My response was, “Wait, what? We definitely speak different languages!” Here’s the fun part, that equation got our audience thinking, curious and engaged. It set the stage for our conversation about the art and science of storytelling and how to communicate with people who speak different languages. “What did we sign up for?” quickly turned into, “Where will they go next.” We opened a gap. Thus creating an internal dialog as the audience sorted through the possibilities of where our story would go. And that led to active audience participation throughout our session.


This opening did something else, as well. It injected the human factor into our story. I shared with the audience how Kimberly’s mathematic equation made me feel. Not smart, that’s for sure. I was candid about not being a math-geek and the challenge I had just trying to decode her message. I presented a different type of visual that could be used to represent the data while offering additional context to help tell the bigger story.

data story blog 2

The technique worked. Our audience laughed, engaged and connected with us and our story right from the start.

Allowing yourself to be candid, vulnerable, human is what creates a connection with your audience. If they aren’t feeling authenticity, you’ll struggle to gain trust. Sure, the data will show your audience the evidence, but will it move them to make recommended business decisions? Will they buy your idea? Will they trust that the data you’re sharing is accurate? You have to give the data a voice. Through story, you can paint a picture of the data’s journey. What challenges, complications and struggles are taking place? What options does your audience have? What is the resolution based on the insights?

Always, of course, keeping it evidence-based! Kimberly penned a great read about the importance of telling non-fiction data stories if you’re looking for guidance.


Great storytellers know that opening gaps leads to opening minds which leads to open participation (and dialog). A dose of humanity and authenticity connects the audience to you and your ideas. This will ultimately prompt action. And isn’t getting an audience to move the key reason you’re telling a story?


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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