What is Data Storytelling? Why You Need to Know this Skill

In this guide we'll introduce the concept of data storytelling. Read on to learn what this means and how you can master the skill of data storytelling.
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We all know that data can be a powerful tool to tell you what is happening in a business. But can it tell you why? Throughout human history, storytelling has been a powerful mechanism for delivering information, and that hasn’t changed at all in the computer age. As companies of all sizes collect more data than previously thought possible, it’s increasingly falling on analysts and scientists to uncover new ways to transform numbers into insights.

Enter data storytelling. In the era of big data, the ability to convey data as a narrative that humans can comprehend is critical. In this article, we’re defining the practice of data storytelling and defining why it’s important. We’ll also break down the top tools and tips you need to get started with this powerful skill.

What is Data Storytelling?

Data Storytelling is a multidisciplinary practice that incorporates knowledge of communication, analysis, and design to craft compelling stories utilizing raw enterprise data. Forbes contributor Brent Dykes explains the process using “Three E’s.” First, the method explains to the audience what is happening within a dataset and why that insight is important. Next, visuals are applied to enlighten the audience, providing them with scope and detail they wouldn’t otherwise notice without the application of charts or graphs. Finally, narratives and visuals come together to engage stakeholders and ensure that the right narrative can drive change in an organization.

Ultimately, humans are hardwired to accept information in narrative form. One can become obscured by endless columns of numbers and infinite tabs of graphs. The successful data storyteller will tailor their analysis to their audience and merge data science practices with visualizations and storytelling techniques to create new knowledge and actionable insights.

Why is Data Storytelling Important?

So why is this skill so vital to possess in a business context? We know data experts are increasingly in-demand across the tech and business sectors—machine learning and AI are consistently ranked as top trending skills by LinkedIn—but they often lack the “last mile” skills that involve converting insights into actions. Becoming an expert across the hard skills of data and the soft skills of narrative and presentation can make you an invaluable asset at any organization.

Here are several other reasons businesses and individuals have found data storytelling useful:

  • Versatile formats (images, presentation, videos, spoken narrative, text) allow storytellers to craft narratives best suited to custom audiences.
  • Bridges the gap for decision-makers between the emotional and data-driven sides of the brain. Additional context makes for better decisions.
  • It gets key points across quickly and provides an easily understood framework for managing large sets of data from multiple sources.
  • Memorability – 63 percent of people can recall a story but only five percent remember a single statistic, according to a study by Stanford professor Chip Heath. Stories are what capture someone’s attention.
  • Persuadability – Data Storytelling done right removes bias and external noise to make room for framing the data in a way that the audience cares about and convinces them to act.

Data Storytelling and Visualization Examples to Inspire

Curious as to how this practice looks like in action? We’ve collected some of our favorite examples from across the web, as to how this practice is being utilized by major companies and individuals.

  • Spotify Wrapped – A consumer-facing example you might be familiar with. Every year, the streaming music service sends out a customized “story” of each user’s year in music. Listening data is used to provide top artists, songs, and genres. Sharing data in this format allows users to easily share their love for the brand on social media and is a yearly reminder of the value of the service.
  • Slack Weekly Summary Emails – Email open and engagement rates are low across all industries. That’s why the communication tool, Slack, has broken the mold by using visuals to communicate how customers are using its service. Not only is this helpful for managers to quickly understand how communication happens across their organization, but the memorability factor keeps engagement high.
  • Buy or Rent? – It’s no surprise that the New York Times is a master at combining data with storytelling to craft useful products. This interactive calculator allows for user input in determining which financial path to homeownership best suits them. A perfect example of matching content to correct form, this feature has more impact than it ever would as a primarily written article.
  • Examining Inequality – In the non-profit space, data-supported narratives like this one can spur people to act or donate. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created this visualization that demonstrates how gender and geography impact global poverty rates.
  • Happy Data – Of course, storytelling can also uplift and inspire. That’s exactly what’s happening here in this project from Pentagram. This collection of “data vignettes” combine data and images that share “hopeful views of the world” throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Data Storytelling Tools and How to Get Started

If you’re interested in the world of data storytelling, you’ll want to become familiar with the two most popular data visualization software, Microsoft’s Power BI and Tableau. Both of these platforms offer a range of capabilities to turn raw data into beautiful visualizations while utilizing varying degrees of automation and business intelligence. Within the business sector, you’ll see both being used to generate insights via dashboards and custom data “views.” Tableau and Power BI even provide built-in recommended visual best practices for different types of inputted data sets.

On the other hand, a core tenant of data storytelling is finding the perfect overlap between your data, your message, and your audience. This means charts and graphs might not always be your medium of choice. Luckily, a wide range of choices exists on the web. These consist of platforms like full-service, automated data storytelling platform Nugit, design tool Canva, and even TikTok. The ways in which data can be presented are only limited by your creativity and ingenuity!

As you begin to master your mediums, here are a few final data storytelling “must-haves” to remember:

  • Create a running narrative with a clear objective or call-to-action.
  • Keep it compelling to your audience.
  • Let your data tell your story. Don’t underestimate the importance of objectivity and lack of bias.
  • Choose the right graphics and visual medium to match your data and your audience.
  • Pinpoint the data that matters.
  • If you’re presenting, remember that practice makes perfect!

How to Learn Data Storytelling

Data storytelling is an interdisciplinary skill that requires the participant to be well versed in data analysis, visualization, and narrative techniques. Many data analysts and practitioners pick up these skills on their own throughout their careers, as they discover which methods are best suited for communicating information effectively.

For beginners to the subject, numerous experts have compiled online courses ranging from totally free to several thousands of dollars. Bootcamp programs in Data Analytics and Data Science might also incorporate storytelling into their curricula and can be a cost-effective way of skilling up quickly in the data field. If you’re looking for a lower impact way to increase your knowledge, check out additional blogs, videos, books, and podcasts that are available online.

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