Master the art of data storytelling to capture attention with analytics — and supercharge your growth with actionable insights.
Why data storytelling?
It’s simple: storytelling is how humans naturally communicate.
Jonathan Gottschall expresses in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
To put it another way…
Data alone is just numbers and charts — it doesn’t communicate why the data matters. Data stories, however, convey valuable, big-picture insights that drive integrative action. Let’s take a closer look.
What is data storytelling?
Data storytelling uses analytics, data visualisation, and qualitative analysis to tell a narrative. It puts the data into context so that the audience can understand the broader implications of the data.
Consider any good story. The storyteller captures attention (and holds it) with a who, what, why, and how. There is typically a beginning, a middle, and an end — and a clear path between the initial hook and the desired conclusion. Finally, the story is communicated in a way that the target audience can easily understand. Data stories follow a similar roadmap.
How to master data storytelling
Let’s explore my five-step process to crafting terrific data stories that grab attention and get results.
1. Compile the data
Before you craft your story, you need to gather and organise your data. Take your time compiling all the necessary information. Otherwise, you risk crafting a weak data story that does little to influence your audience.
Zoom out so you can conceptualise the big picture — the narrative arc of your story.
Then ask (1) What story do I want to tell and (2) What does the objective data actually say? The key is to find the story that the data supports.
Search for interesting insights that will form a compelling and meaningful narrative. Dig into relationships, correlations, and patterns — without manipulating the data to serve your interests better.
2. Consider your audience
At The Growth Practice, I talk a lot about understanding your target audience. That’s because if you want to win in today’s fiercely competitive entrepreneurial landscape, you must understand your customers.
The same principle holds for data storytelling.
To tell a compelling data story, you must understand to whom you are speaking.
Is your audience a C-level executive? A product development team? Marketing?
Different audiences have different backgrounds, technical knowledge, and goals. For example, an executive team might be more interested in gleaning big-picture data implications, while a marketing team might want a deep dive into website analytics and user behaviour.
As you hone in on your audience, consider the following:
- What do they care about?
- What are their goals?
- What do they already know — what information have they already been exposed to?
- What new information will help them reach their goals?
3. Clarify which points matter
The best data stories use relevant data to find interesting correlations and insights; they edit irrelevant information that distracts from or dilutes the core message.
I’m not advising you to cherry-pick the data that will benefit your story. That would be unethical.
However, just as you don’t want to read a tangent-filled story, your audience doesn’t want to sift through extraneous information that doesn’t add to the narrative.
Cut the fluff. Your audience will be grateful, and your data story will be more impactful.
4. Craft a meaningful narrative
Now it’s time to build your data story! I suggest following a traditional storytelling framework (a beginning, middle, and an end) to provide natural structure and organisation. That could look like this:
Get your audience on the same page and highlight what’s to come. Provide context so that the data insights will make sense to your audience.
2. Rising action
Explore the main question you seek to answer or the problem you aim to solve.
Use analytics, data visualisation and storytelling, and qualitative analysis to resolve your problem. Put the data into context so that your audience understands why it matters.
Summarise the story presented. Propose integrative action steps for moving forward.
We can see a fantastic example of data storytelling in the Telegraph’s ‘What Africa Will Look Like In 100 Years.’
The data story introduces us to the fact that Africa’s population is booming — set to quadruple over the 21st century. The rising action introduces us to the challenges and opportunities of such population growth:
“The overarching challenge for Africa in the decades to come is massive population growth in a context of widespread poverty.”
Stunning visuals, easy-to-understand charts, and scroll-based animations demonstrate the implications of rapid population growth.
That data story concludes with a call to create better infrastructure with specific action steps to achieve precisely that.
Your data stories might have vastly different objections and audiences than the example above. That said, the most impactful data driven storytelling follows the same principles.
Pro tip: The secret to great data stories is relentless editing. Revise your work until your story is clear and concise.
5. Communicate your story
As the name implies, data storytelling isn’t just about crafting a narrative — there’s also the matter of communicating your insights.
Often that means a virtual or in-person presentation. A few basics hold true: speak clearly, engage with your audience, and make eye contact.
Visuals are crucial to your message, no matter how you present your data story. Data visualisations transform convoluted information into easy-to-understand reference points.
Data visualisations could include:
Ensure your visuals enforce your message — not distract from it. I like the way Scott Berinato says it for The Harvard Business Review:
“The impulse is to include everything you know, but busy charts communicate the idea that you’ve been just that — busy, as in: ‘Look at all the data I have and the work I’ve done.”
The bottom line about data storytelling
Don’t just present a jumble of numbers, charts, and analytics reports.
Do communicate why the data matters. Put it into context that makes sense to your audience so that they understand the broader implications of the data.
You’ll better understand the most potent action steps to take — and supercharge your growth as a result.