Telling Stories with Data: Five Strategies for Presenting Effective Data

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Click to learn more about author Ethan Dunwill.

Storytelling is as old as mankind. It has been a universal way to pass heritage from one generation to the next. It is the fiction that makes great novels and movies. And in this digital age, it is how businesses often establish connections with their audiences. All of these types of storytelling are verbal – either spoken or written words.

We don’t often think of data or factual information as telling stories, but it surely does. In fact, there is a story in every chunk of data that is depicted in a chart, a graph, a diagram, a scatter plot, or some type of metaphoric illustration, such as a pyramid.

If you want to tell an effective story with your data, then you want to choose the right visual depiction, so that the viewer easily “reads” the story and understands the “plot.” While it is tempting to choose the easiest format, instead, think it through a bit.

  1. Ask Yourself Some Questions

The type of information you are presenting should help drive your decision on which type of visual to use. Is your information numerical data? Is it conceptual? Are you comparing sets of data?

For example, the FDA recommends daily servings of various foods. This is conceptual information and is depicted via a pyramid:

On the other hand, comparative narrative data lends itself to a bar graph, such as this one depicting comparative rainfall amounts of two cities:

Image Credit:

  1. Think About the Context

Here again, you will need to ask some questions. First, ask who your audience is. There is a huge difference between the average online consumer and a group of researchers ready to receive statistical data. When you understand the demographics of your audience, you will choose the right visual depiction.

Ask yourself what you want the audience to do with the story you are telling? Do you want to stimulate a discussion? Do you want them to take some action based upon the story? Or are you simply reporting data for informational purposes? Think about the two visuals above. The food pyramid is for information but it is also hoped that viewers will take action and adjust their diets accordingly. The second bar graph is purely for informational purposes. It might be used as individuals or a business is considering a relocation. If that type of bar graph were to compare ocean temperatures, on the other hand, the purpose might be to stimulate a discussion or to motivate viewers to join an environmental cause.

The other factor in context is the setting. If you are presenting your visual as a part of an online article or post, then it is “fixed,” and the viewer decides how to process the information. If, however, it is a part of a presentation to a live audience, then the viewer can ask questions, and participate in an immediate discussion with others in the audience.

  1. Identify Your Exact Purpose

This is the “crux of the matter.” You have to be able to succinctly identify what your message is and why anyone should even care about it. Consider yourself a non-fiction writer of sorts. A journalist who writes an editorial must clearly state his message and back it up; a student crafting a research paper must have a thesis statement in his introduction, and a marketer creating copy must have a defined message for each piece. As Jodi Wright from the professional writing service, Trust My Paper, states, “No piece of writing can engage an audience unless it has a thesis and purpose. It has to propose a thesis and explain its importance to the reading audience. Otherwise, there is no reason to write the piece at all.”

The question to ask yourself is “so what?” – this according to author Cole Knaflic in his book Storytelling With Data. He suggests that before any attempts to put together a graphic story, the creator explains the information verbally to someone unfamiliar with that data or information. Be certain that the listener can repeat back, not the numbers necessarily, but the point of the message.

Below is a graph that compares the rise in CEO salaries vs. top wage earner salaries and growth of the S&P 500 between 1980 and 2015, as published in a Fortune Magazine article. The author’s message? “Rise in CEO salaries borders on the obscene.” And that’s the story being told – in one sentence. If you can do the same, then you are ready to craft your visual representation.

The author’s message? “Rise in CEO salaries borders on the obscene.” That story has been encapsulated in one sentence. If you can do the same, then you are ready to craft your visual representation.

  1. Get “Old School”

Instead of jumping right into an excel or PowerPoint template, sit down and think about how best to represent your story. This calls for some paper, pencils, and perhaps some colored markers to sketch a storyboard. At this point, you should experiment with different types of templates for your presentation. But you don’t have to start from scratch. If you have the purpose clearly defined, then you can look at samples of other graphs, charts, etc. that have similar purposes – compare/contrast, distribute, show relationships, compose information that shows change over time or components of a larger concept, etc.

Moreover, Harvard Business Review has published a chart (imagine that) of the types of tools that work well for numerous types of information and data to be presented.

And here is a chart from Crazy Egg that provides lots of suggestions for visual depictions based upon your purpose (what you want to show your audience and why).

Information source: Andrew Abela

  1. Simplify

This process involves several steps:

  • See what you can eliminate – anything that is duplicated or unnecessary
  • How can you simplify the visual itself? Unless the visual is for a scientific or technical audience, think in terms of a middle school age student. Could that student easily read your chart or graph and understand the story it is telling?
  • Use colors. These show the key factors you are presenting and do attract attention
  • Setup a hierarchy of letter and number size, based upon the order of importance.

Here is a simple bar graph depicting the sales of various fruits at a fruit stand.

Image Credit:

Let’s analyze the effectiveness of this graph.

  1. The title is in bold but should probably be in bigger letters. It could also explain the purpose a bit more – the point of the graph is to show the average daily sales by type of fruit.
  2. The choice of colors is a nice touch – matching the fruit each bar represents.
  3. There is some duplication here. On the left are progressive numbers, and each bar is seated on where it falls on that number scale. If the title had included the term “average daily fruit sales,” the number scale on the left really would not be necessary. Instead, the numbers at the top of each bar tell the story – both in numbers and in the percentages of total fruit sales.
  4. The average person may not immediately understand the percentage figures, because nowhere is it stated what those percentages mean. Obviously, to a trained observer, the percentages refer to the portion of total sales. But that probably should be stated in the title or a sub-title.

This is a very simple example, but use it as a model as you consider how to tell your story. Your audience needs to know exactly what you are depicting, what all of the numbers mean, and why it is important for them to have this information.

In the End

Every piece of content that is created, whether it is in written or visual form, must have a point. Every piece of fiction or non-fiction, all marketing content, every essay or paper, and every chart or graph has a theme and an audience to educate, inform, entertain, and/or inspire. If you want to tell a story with your visual representation of data or information, then you need to carefully consider these suggestions. Data has important stories to tell – make sure yours does it well.

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