Data Storytelling: How to Craft a Story Using Data
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Northeastern University’s Level Analytics blog.
Like writing a novel, data storytelling should have a structured approach. In order to clearly communicate insights from an analysis and not just present data points and facts, it should include an equal combination of three key elements: data, narrative, and visuals.
Plotting the Storyline
Before you write your story, create simple charts in Excel. These charts shouldn’t be used in the actual presentation, but will allow you to easily digest and QA your data. It will also help you identify trends in the results, and you can start to create hypothesis against your campaign objectives.
From there, you should outline your storyline or create a storyboard. Think about the best way to visualize the data and draw charts using pen and paper before touching Excel or your data visualization tool. For example, if you have response data by city, show it visually on a map vs in a bar chart.
The Editing Bay
Your data story should never be longer than 10–12 slides or you will lose your audience and the impact of your message. Be very critical, ask yourself of every slide, “so what? What action am I expecting the brand or business to take from this data?” If you’ve uncovered an interesting finding, but doesn’t necessarily have an actionable next step, put it in the appendix.
Don’t be afraid to preview a draft of your story before it’s complete. Getting real-time feedback from your team members is helpful to the editing process.
Make sure your audience is focused on your findings, not sloppy slides! Eliminate as many distractions as possible:
- Use page numbers
- Make sure fonts are consistent, as well as formats (bolding, etc)
- Be considerate of the audience! Be kind with spacing of text and bullets
- Chart colors should match your presentation template, while location from slide to slide should align
- Mix up chart types (avoid death by bar chart!) so every slide looks different and will keep your audience engaged
- Do not use clip art or animation!
- Avoid shading/shadows as they look “dirty” on screen and don’t print well
How to Structure your Analysis
- Always start your presentation with an agenda to set expectations
- The Executive Summary should be the first slide of substance in your presentation. It should be a stand alone slide, and a synopsis of your findings and recommendations. If you left this one slide out in a conference room and walked away, anyone who comes into the room should be able to pick it up and understand it without context
- Your next slide should be your objectives/methodology/purpose slide. This should include your strategy and objectives, as well as your measurement approach and any tools that were used to collect the data
- The next slides in your story will be the body of your presentation. “Peel the onion,” start at a high level and explore in further detail to reveal trend drivers and recommendations
- The appendix is where you can include supporting data, screenshots, etc that are interesting but aren’t crucial to the story
Preparing for the presentation
Before physically walking into the room to present, make sure you know your audience (whether it’s going to be executives or junior analysts). Prepare what you want to say beforehand, and anticipate the questions the audience might have for you so you can prepare the answers. In order to engage the audience, have questions prepared to ask them as you go through your presentation. That will keep them interested, and prevent the audience from challenging you and peppering you with questions you might not be able to answer on the spot.
If it’s an in-person presentation, always have backup copies of it on a thumb drive and in e-mail (especially if you are traveling and might not be able to access your server in the office). If it’s a remote presentation, ALWAYS get on the WebEx early! Make sure to work through any technical issues so not to interrupt the time blocked for your presentation.
Personal preparation will reduce your nervousness, and allow you to engage the audience with eye contact and ad libs. It will also empower you to stray from the script and own your content.
When you are telling your story, always use HOPT:
- Orientation: describe in detail what’s going on within the visual
- Point: what’s the takeaway
- Transition: connect the dots between the current slide and the next
Want to learn more about data storytelling? Come to Web Analytics Wednesday on 8/24 at Northeastern to meet Sharon and hear her speak on the topic!