Putting the ‘Story’ back in Data Storytelling

A candid, practical guide to harness the power of stories to ignite monumental change — not just on the job, but in everything you do.

You have probably heard a lot about storytelling, being able to tell a story, or using data to tell a story. These phrases are so commonly used that you’d think it’s almost supposed to be intuitive. It sounds simple, but I would argue it’s not. I know for myself, it was something I worked really hard at to grasp.

Perhaps in your career, you’ve come to realize that presenting and communicating information is a mainstay of professional life, including those in highly technical fields. As data practitioners, it’s quite easy to get overly absorbed in the technicalities of what we’re doing that we become completely isolated from the purpose of the project in the first place. We’ve all been there. I am guilty as charged.

Unfortunately in the business world, a lot of great ideas go to the wayside due to the inability to effectively articulate and galvanize those ideas. But if we somehow engage our audience in such a manner that we leave them forever changed and wanting more — then we will notice our ideas come to life in ways we never thought possible.

So, how do we properly tell a story? Not only that, but how do we do it in a way that is captivating, insightful, and able to inspire action? In this post, I will try my best to illustrate some simple, yet instrumental concepts I have compiled from storytelling resources over the years. Let’s begin!

Advice: Harness the archetypal story framework found in literature, mythology, and entertainment:

The art of storytelling has been around for as long as we can remember. Many people throughout history have perfected its art form. From Homer to Shakespeare, to John F. Kennedy, to Oprah Winfrey. What all these great storytellers have in common is their rare ability to captivate a crowd and arouse inspiration in all of us.

The hidden message in transformational storytelling is the appeal to emotion and empathy in others.

“Many times, it isn’t until you speak with people in person that you can establish a visceral connection that motivates them to adopt your idea.” — Nancy Duarte, CEO, Duarte

There is tremendous power in storytelling and the potential to create lasting change if done correctly. This is where the archetypal story framework comes into play. Your presentations should move beyond mere factual talking points, and instead move people by taking them on a journey with you.

Let’s explore this framework a little more concisely:

The story line for most epics follows a very structured and generalizable pattern. A simplified version can be seen below:

Resonate — Nancy Duarte

Picture this: We are introduced to a main protagonist, who resides in the ordinary world as we know it. We are introduced to their world—it’s beauty, inner workings, and perhaps too, its great injustices. Unbeknownst to us however, is a brooding problem lying underneath the surface.

As this problem exposes itself, it becomes clear that the protagonist is the only person truly capable of vanquishing it. Reluctantly, he/she accepts this mission and embarks on an enduring journey, encountering numerous trials and tribulations, and is greatly tested along the way.

After an epic encounter, our hero emerges victorious and returns not only with the gold, but with a forever changed perspective of how they view the world. They are no longer the same naive, misguided person they once were. Lastly, they return home to share their hard-fought riches with their community, forever improving the lives of those dearest to them.

We are all very familiar with this plot. Think about the last movie or novel you read. There is sure to be some semblance of the archetypal heroic journey instilled in there. The three bold points above are the quintessential hallmarks of what is called the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey archetype was first coined by Joseph Campbell and is a pivotal storytelling framework used in film today. Campbell spent much of his life traveling, fascinated by commonalities between traditional mythic folklore. The idea of a universal archetype was first published in his landmark 1949 book titled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

So, why does this simple story structure appear so frequently? And why is its understanding almost innate? It’s really because this is the way we view our own lives. We are all on our own heroic journey, facing obstacles in our path, hoping to reach a fulfilling end goal. We just can’t help but relate to this story structure.

Some examples of common movies broken into their simple story structures:

Resonate — Nancy Duarte

Transitioning to storytelling on the job:

So how do we apply this storytelling framework to our everyday work lives?

And you may ask whether this still applies to topics that are dull or heavily inundated with data. I believe the answer is still a resounding yes. It may not follow your typical heroic adventure movie, but there is still an underlying reason why you embarked on your task in the first place, isn’t there? Why have you done all the work you did? Surely, it must have some meaning to others, if it has meaning to you.

This does not mean to disregard facts, and make your presentation a soap opera. It means to balance your quantitative analysis and facts with an appeal to main issue at hand. Find out why what you are doing is important and relate those points to others in a carefully constructed, and engaging manner.

Data Example: Getting Extra Purchases from Advertising Banners

Background: You work for an online retail store and leadership are hard pressed on earning extra revenue from advertising. The marketing team suggests using advertising banners on the website’s homepage to boost sales of their new niche product. You are assigned to communicate the findings of your team’s A/B testing regarding these banners.

Now let’s break down the aspects of this analysis into its storytelling components, and pretend we’re presenting this information to stakeholders:

Introduction to the ordinary world as we know it: As you all know, our e-commerce business has largely operated independent of advertising on our own homepage. Currently, advertising is almost exclusively done on 3rd party websites and include paid search ads and social media advertising. This is somewhat unique for companies in our industry, as most seem to heavily rely on homepage advertising. Here are some examples of common advertising banners typically seen on retail websites: [Example slides].

Awareness of the problem: Our current advertising strategy is great for attracting first time customers, and has yielded us success in the past. However, there are innate issues in relying on this model. Firstly, we are at a point in our growth where new traffic generated from these advertisements is stagnating. Secondly, these 3rd party advertisements can be quite expensive and ROI has been naturally declining.

Call to adventure and a glimpse of what could be: As a result, after partnering with the marketing team, we have decided to experiment with the use of advertising banners on our homepage. This method of advertising is common in the digital marketing space and is useful in particular for converting passive customers into making a transaction that they otherwise wouldn’t have made.

The hope is twofold. We hope that this effort will introduce a cheaper advertising alternative that will lead casual customers to make additional purchases, raising final conversion rates. We also hope to see a long-term benefit of increasing customer loyalty among top customers — encouraging them to try new products and become used to the quality our brand promotes.

Crossing the threshold, experiencing trials and tribulations: For our experiment, we decided to test several banner layouts for our new niche product, “Product X.” The variations include: 1) a horizontal banner at the top of the web page, 2) A vertical banner near the navigational menu bar, and 3) no banner.

Ensuring ideal experimental conditions proved challenging as we had to consider multiple factors including: concurrent marketing campaigns, accounting for distinct users across multiple devices, as well as seasonal factors. Finally, we ran a series of 6 week-long tests over a period of 3 months, capturing a total of ~50,000 visitors over this time period.

The final ordeal and its consequences: At the conclusion of the experiment, we yielded the following results [Show below results in a graph]:

Horizontal banner: +3.2% conversion rate over control, resulting in $XX of additional revenue.
(18, 259 visitors, p-value: 0.024)

Vertical banner: +1.7% conversion rate over control, resulting in $XX of additional revenue.
(15, 732 visitors, p-value: 0.087)

The use of advertising banners on the homepage proved to mostly be a successful strategy for increasing customer conversions — with the horizontal banner being the favored layout.

We would be weary definitively claiming the positive effects of the vertical banner, as it’s possible the effect could have merely been a result of random chance.

Returning home with the elixir, forever transformed: The use of advertising banners can prove to be an effective advertising stream that is quite cost-effective. We found that users will click on these banners as one of their first actions upon entering the website. It would be interesting to combine this effort with the use of promo codes.

While promising, there is not sufficient evidence to claim the effect of these banners on generating long term customer loyalty. There simply isn’t enough definitive data to back up that claim. Lastly, because sales are highly seasonal in nature, we would recommend running a follow-up study in the off-season to compare results.

All being said, this was an insightful marketing endeavor that is likely to benefit the business, given the supporting evidence. Assuming similar experimental conditions run throughout the next quarter, we would project a positive ROI between $XX and $XX.

If there is anything to take away from this post, it’s that your presentation should emulate a typical story structure — it should introduce the topic or proposal, the current challenges that impede its success, the possibility of what could be, and the resolution/pathway towards success. By doing this, you are giving your audience a reason to care and connect with your message in a deeper way.

Now that we understand the main framework, let’s discuss specific strategy:

Since we have a grasp of the overarching strategy, it’s helpful to implement some practical communication tips:

1. The presentation is not about you. It’s about the audience.

If there is a single cardinal sin about presentations, it has to be this one. This is a common misconception that can really ruin a presentation.

As the speaker, you are here to serve the audience, not to talk about yourself. The point is to instill meaningful wisdom in others and to help persuade them to your point of view, not show how brilliant you are. This requires humility and a deep understanding of other’s wants and needs.

In the hero’s journey, your audience is the hero. You are only there to help guide them through challenges and help them emerge successful and transformed by the end of it. They are the ones undergoing the heroic transformation.

2. You should always try to ground your presentation with an appeal to the business issue at hand, especially if your audience is non-technical.

It’s quite easy to get lost in the details of the subject matter, and lose your audience in the process. The audience usually has a peripheral understanding of the topic at hand, and requires more of a high-level overview of the process.

One method that works is to always bring the presentation back the original business problem — bring it back to the only common ground you have between you and the audience.

If you are explaining something and feel attention drifting away, try to summarize your point with a reference to its purpose in the grand scheme of things (e.g. “So to summarize, this complicated web diagram represents a quick method customer service agents use to flag potential fraudulent activity. It’s important because…”)

Another useful tip is to always, always explain the background and original purpose of your work at the beginning. In other words, always answer the “why should I care?” question at the start. Set the scene well.

3. Act as if you are talking to a single person who represents the average of your audience.

When I first started giving presentations at my job, I had a difficult time gauging the needs of my entire audience. It was very easy for me to focus my attention on a single person who stood out, someone I knew, or someone who was visibly disgruntled.

As a result, I began to curate the rest of my presentation to that specific person’s needs — all to the detriment of my message and my audience.

A helpful tip is to address the audience as if they represent a single person who represents the average member in terms of knowledge/experience/seniority. This will help keep you focused and prevent you from getting distracted by any one member who stands out.

In other words, know your audience extremely well and keep your message aligned to their needs, despite the sentiment, questions, or interruptions posed by those who fall out of this main group.

4. Present “explanatory” analysis, instead of “exploratory” analysis.

As people who are surrounded by data on a constant basis, and work tirelessly to produce insights that may or may not have the desired impact we hope, it can be tempting to show the audience more than what they need to see.

The nature of data science involves hours trying to understand the data we are working with, examining distributions, patterns, and correlations between different variables.

As Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic states in Storytelling with Data:

“When we do exploratory analysis, it’s like hunting for pearls in oysters. We might have to open 100 oysters to find perhaps two pearls.” — Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

When explaining the results of our analysis to stakeholders, we want to limit the information we divulge to only the most significant artifacts. We want to spend our time talking about the two pearls, instead of the 98 empty oysters we had to scour through beforehand. This is what is called explanatory analysis.

Attention spans are short. We have to manage to keep everyone on track and engaged in the unfolding journey. Irrelevant information detracts from this process and has the unintended consequence of having your audience heavily weight this information in their final judgment of your presentation.

5. Try to communicate the 3–5 central points of your story, instead of rehearsing specific lines.

It’s easy to get carried away memorizing riveting opening lines or transition phrases. Sometimes this can even work quite well. The danger with this strategy is that it limits your ability to effectively navigate unexpected situations, turning your once thought to be inspiring presentation into a stress-induced, robotic performance.

It also takes way too much time to painstakingly prepare individual lines for a presentation. You are probably better served using that time elsewhere.

It’s of my opinion that the best performers, regardless of their domain, operate most effectively when incorporating a large amount of ad-lib in their act. They operate beautifully on the cusp of underlying order and spontaneous creativity.

As a result, I recommend keeping in mind the overarching story of your message instead. One possible way to do this could just be using the simple storytelling pillars discussed earlier.

Overall, preparing and presenting information based solely on a few key points is difficult, especially when first starting out. It is something that is cultivated through time and practice. You will feel overly stiff and anxious at first, but the more you connect with your central message, become familiar with its complexities, and most importantly, speak from a place of compassion and humility — the more this will seamlessly incorporate into your life.

6. Use simple, clear, effective charts to get the point across.

In our presentations, it is often best to use simple charts to communicate our insights in the most straightforward manner. This usually involves simple bar charts, line graphs, and scatter plots.

More complicated, statistical graphs are usually used in exploratory analysis, or when producing handheld reports…This is admittedly coming from someone who loves novel, complex visualizations. The fact is that there is a time and place for these types of visualizations. They tend to be geared more for in-depth analyses, scientific study, and exploration. Not so much for presentations, where the clarity and conciseness of your message is paramount.

If your audience takes longer than 20–30 seconds to decipher your graph, it’s possible you have made a mistake.

I’ve found that people naturally form their own patterns and trends when viewing a graph. If your visual isn’t strikingly clear, you run the risk of your audience forming conclusions about the data that may not be true, or that are completely opposed to what you had intended. This could interrupt the flow of your presentation and focus everyone’s attention away from the main message at hand.

For more information on using appropriate color, font, and chart types refer to this great article written by a good friend of mine, Alex Cheng: In Data Science: Details Matter.

Can you harness the power of stories in your daily life?

Stories form our way of seeing the world. They allow us to be creative, to wonder, and to dream. They let us engage faithfully in the world around us. Stories are also a great way to understand other people and cultivate meaningful connections. You offer others a glimpse of who you are by sharing your story.

Lastly, I’ll just say this — in your personal life, telling your own story is always a frightening thing to do. It requires nerves of steel. Telling good stories requires deep vulnerability. It’s not easy being vulnerable, especially in the professional world where outward, artificial projections of competence are so highly praised.

However, I challenge this common assumption. I challenge the need to exhibit utter perfection in fear of judgment. Instead, I dare you to have the courage to be your vulnerable, imperfect self. The best stories are the authentic, trouble-ridden ones.

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are. — Brené Brown

Resources:

Here are some resources that I’ve found extremely helpful in aiding my growth in communication and storytelling. Definitely check them out:

Resonate, Nancy Duarte

The best free resource I’ve found regarding storytelling. I highly suggest reading it. It features many foundational elements from film and entertainment.

Data Story, Nancy Duarte

Geared toward data practitioners. Also a great resource.

Storytelling with Data, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

Probably the foundational data storytelling/visualization book out there. Cole has a great way of distilling information to people at all levels of expertise.

Kate Strachnyi

Kate is public data practitioner and a great resource for visualization and storytelling. Also recommend following her on LinkedIn.

Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo

Some straightforward, insightful tips on successful TED talks.

The Power of Vulnerability, TED Talk, Brené Brown

A classic TED talk that really cuts to heart of the issue: vulnerability.

Data science practitioner trying to make sense of the world. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jfleury12/

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