The Art of Storytelling Using Data

Long before there was data or writing or even a spoken language as we understand it, there were stories. The cave paintings at Lascaux give evidence of the power of storytelling at least 17,000 years ago, predating civilization by many millennia. From the first bedtime stories we loved when we were young to the latest blockbusters on the big screen, it’s clear that humans are story machines.

Research by Stanford Business professor, Jennifer Aaker, indicates that data storytelling has the power to persuade and motivate only when the underlying data becomes meaningful. Data stories generate meaning for the organization when those stories are memorable, impactful and personal.

The Link From Data to Action

Data analysis alone will not get your business to where you want to be. Forrester analysts concluded, “Storytelling is your most important data-to-insights activator.” That’s why data-driven business leaders are three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision-making. It can make all the difference between disrupting and being disrupted.

Imaginative data storytelling breaks down barriers to change. AIG’s chief science officer, Murli Buluswar, explained: “The biggest challenge of making the evolution from a knowing culture to a learning culture–from a culture that largely depends on heuristics in decision making to a culture that is much more objective and data-driven and embraces the power of data and technology–is really not the cost. Initially, it largely ends up being imagination and inertia.”

Finding the Story in the Data

Many data analysts start by looking for insights in the data. That sounds reasonable because that’s exactly what data analysts are paid to do. It may be part of the job description and matches the directive that they usually get from senior executives. However, what managers really crave are intelligent insights that help them make all better decisions based on solid data. They can’t do that unless the data is presented in a form that’s memorable, impactful and personal, as Aacker suggested.

All the hard work that goes into data analysis is wasted if the results don’t motivate the decision-maker. A chart is just a chart. Data storytelling impels action.

Consider one of the earliest precepts in chess: “Don’t play the game, play the player.” The pieces never change, but the person across the board is different with each new match.

In a similar way, data storytelling begins with your audience. Which factors matter most to your listener? Which factors will have the greatest impact on their upcoming decisions? The best data storytellers make the audience the hero of the data story.

Elements of Dashboard Design

The user’s most pressing needs will shape the elements of your data dashboard design. Too many dashboards go unused because business leaders don’t understand them, so they fall back on familiar spreadsheets.

From the first moment a user launches the dashboard, whether it covers sales forecasting, sales performance, order performance, etc., they should feel both mastery and curiosity. The reliability of the data shouldn’t even enter into their minds. The dashboard should deliver the most critical info at a glance, with the opportunity to drill down into any specific area easily, like the inverted triangle of a news story. Important takeaways first, supporting insights next, details available on request.

This is where the concept of personas comes in. Design each customized dashboard around the persona of the role. The Sales VP will need an overview of regional performance in a single image. Quota attainment as a whole takes precedence over individual variations, but those must be no more than a click away.

Think of the dashboard as an adventure where the user is the hero, not a math lesson. Build in collaborative extensions and gamification motivators so the user can easily share wins or concerns across the organization.

Finally, give the user something to do. Every data visualization carries with it an implication for action. Make the context explicit: what the user may need to do in response, especially where data is trending toward a tipping point.

The Framework of Our Lives

We are all made of stories. They shape our thinking, provide the structure for beneficial habits and define who we want to be. Our stories form the skeleton of our characters — and that’s as true today for brands as it is has been for individuals throughout history.

The design of dashboard for better business decision-making should begin with the same question that gets you out of bed in the morning:

What story do you want to tell today?