Are You a Good Data Storyteller?
Data talks. It conjures images. It tells stories: of success and ambition, as well as failure and challenge. It looks to the past and to the future, while delivering a clear and accurate now. But data professionals know it speaks best when arranged with a simple visual alongside a cogent message. Visuals show the story of your data, but are your visuals telling the right story the right way? When data storytelling goes wrong—when the visual is too complicated, when there are too many meanings in the graphic, when the message can’t be read quickly or clearly—your audience will not hear the story. And just as a great visual presentation can be remembered for a long time, some stakeholders may take a long time to forget a bad one.
Get data storytelling right with our top five tips for making compelling visuals:
Imagine the visual first. Think about what your ideal chart for your upcoming presentation would look like: what stands out? What color, shape, or line length best highlights your point? Professionals often make the mistake of forcing their information into a pre-set visual template that never truly fits the story they’re trying to tell. Sketch your visual on paper first, then create the digital version—this helps avoid the distraction of the default settings and options your software will interject.
Focus on the audience. Your visual is a vehicle to transform troves of data into a concise picture. This picture should help you get your point across, so consider what your audience will be interested in, what will hold their attention, how quickly they’ll process the meaning, and what might distract them (avoid the latter). Whether they want breadth or depth, construct a visual that will readily highlight what you need them to know.
Use the right type of chart. Charts are not one-size-fits-all: line charts are effective for trends over time, but misleading for categorical comparisons. See the following example, which can misrepresent one department’s expenses as a decrease from another’s (e.g., Accounting is a decrease from Acquisition), when the two are unrelated.
Stick to contiguous data points for line charts, which highlight trends over time. Use a bar chart to make categorical comparisons, as in the example below.
Stick to one message. The power of visuals is that we process them faster—60,000 times faster—than text. Do not risk having your message get lost by trying to say too many things in one picture. Keep it simple; your audience will appreciate it (and they’ll remember it).
Eliminate unnecessary details. Ask yourself: is every part of my visual, including the style and colors used, contributing meaningfully to the story I’m telling? Using lots of color, gridlines, or “flare” can be distracting and may actually take away from the impact your data can have. Try a minimalist approach—you may be surprised how simple and clear your data’s story becomes. And a little minimalism can go a long way toward keeping your data details lean and necessary.
Storytelling with great data visuals ensures the audience grasps the main point. Software will help make the visual precise, but the best visuals are thoroughly planned before you even turn on the computer. So, grab a pencil and paper, start sketching your next great chart, and tell just one story at a time.