From bullet points to Data Storytelling

How to create awesome data storytelling when you don't have any data to plot charts

André Sionek
May 11 · 8 min read

We often think that we need data points to do Data Storytelling. In some cases, we have to present some facts to an audience, and if we can't build charts out of that information, we usually resort to the same-old bullet points slides. We might try improving it by adding images and icons to illustrate the points in each slide. But we often forget to tell the story behind that list of facts. In this post I want to:

  • Show that we don’t necessarily need an x and a y-axis to tell a story using data;
  • Give you some tips on how to improve your Data Storytelling;

A story about Data Storytelling "without any data"

At Gousto, we have a quarterly event called Super Day. This is where each squad celebrates their achievements in the past quarter by presenting some slides to the whole company, from leadership to interns. Imagine a one-hour-long meeting with more than 300 people from different backgrounds listening. In this meeting, each squad has five minutes to present their achievements and update everyone on what happened over the last three months.

Now think that you are in the data engineering squad, and you have to talk about the new data pipelines, refactoring, and new self serve data models. It's a quite technical subject, right? How do you present this in a way that everyone in the audience understands?

A first attempt would be the classical bullet points. Something like this:

Bullet point slides discussing what was achieved in the first quarter. We could add some images and icons or split it into two or three slides to make it look a little better, but it would still be a list of facts with no story behind it.

At first glance, it looks like we don't have any data. There are no tables or charts to show. In a slide like the one above, someone would spend the whole five minutes slot presenting it, and the audience would retain 0% of what was presented. It is too technical and not interesting at all.

So, why should we care about Data Storytelling? Because each of those bullet points is still data. Not in the strict sense of data points like the ones you would plot a chart. They are data that needs to be communicated. And well… We can certainly tell a story about them.

So we took a different approach on our last Super Day. Let me show you the slides, and then let's discuss what you can do to improve your Data Storytelling.

As you can see, we created 13 slides for a five-minute presentation. But each one took only about 20 seconds to present, a total of four minutes. With the remaining one minute left, we could present our team and discuss what was coming next.

The final slides have almost the same content as the original bullet points, but they are much easier to understand and retain. We were able to keep our audience engaged, and most people understood what we did during the last quarter (or at least they understood that we did a lot of stuff).

Transforming bullet points into Data Storytelling

You probably heard or read somewhere about the 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint (10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point font). It states that each slide should take roughly two minutes to present. Hence, if you have five minutes, you must have two or three slides. It turns out that those kinds of rules are not always good. You can easily present 15 slides in five minutes and make it work much better than only three slides.

When you are telling a story, concise slides are usually the best way to present. The trick is that you must give just a little bit of information to your audience on each slide. Like any decent story, we shouldn't reveal the end right in the first chapter.

When building their presentations, people tend to separate slides by topic and then add all bullet points related to that topic in the same slide. And guess what? It doesn't work very well. Especially when you are not the first to present or when it's already 11:45 am and the audience is thinking about what they should have for lunch.

If you present too much information at once, people will lose focus and stop reading and listening to you. This gets even worse if you are talking about a complex subject, such as data engineering. Those people who study our brain call it cognitive load; if it is too hard to understand, our brain instinctively switch off, and our hands automatically open the Instagram feed. Instead, make one slide cover a single point. The cognitive load will be much smaller, and the chances to engage your audience higher.

If you have something very complex to present, start from the most basic part and then build on top. Tell me, when you learned math, did you learn multiplication before addition? No, right? Because multiplication is built on top of additions: 5x3 = 5+5+5.

We are used to learning the basics first, and then we start playing with more advanced stuff. When telling a story with slides, think about the context and what your audience needs to learn first. In our case, showing off what we did only made any sense if someone knew our data architecture. But showing the whole architecture at once would be too much cognitive load. So we decided to "build" the architecture step-by-step.

We always look for patterns in everything; our brains love patterns. If we recognise something that we have seen before, we get more comfortable and even interested in the subject. That's why the songs of the summer sound the same.

If the audience has to learn how to interpret each new slide, they will choose to browse their emails instead of listening to you. That is why you should have a very well defined pattern to tell an effective story using slides. You have to care about everything:

  • The font type and size must be the same in all slides
  • The colour scheme must be the same in all slides
  • The location of objects and images must be the same in all slides

So, once the audience learns to interpret the first slide, they won't need to learn again on the second. If we saw something before, we tend to like it when we see it again. You can reduce a lot of the cognitive load only by following a pattern in your slides.

Use and abuse pictures when telling a story. Humans are highly visual creatures. We rely heavily on visual cues for basic adaptive behaviours such as finding food, mates, shelter and understanding slides.

Instead of writing a lot, replace text with an image or diagram and talk through the slide. Add just a little phrase to remind you to make your point and to guide anyone who might see the slides after the presentation. Also, worth saying that the text must be 100% related to the image!

But remember the previous trick. If you add many images that have little connection with each other or don't follow a pattern, it gets as worse as having only the bullet points. Think through your presentation as a whole. How can you make it visual? How can you make it follow a pattern?

Don't read your slides. Your audience can read. I would say it's even impolite with them when you voice over the same text written on the presentation.

Refrain from using black colour on the little amount of text that you are going to write. Instead, use a shade of grey. It will make your slides feel lighter. After doing that, choose wisely where to use bold, italics and other colours. Add some highlight to strategic words you want your audience to focus on first or on things you want them to remember.

Having white space on your slides is good. Don’t feel obligated to add more stuff if there is some space left. Don’t add fancy backgrounds to fill in the void. Don’t add more text or images. White space is not your enemy. It is good to have white space; it gives the audience room to breathe and process the content.

I hope this article was useful to you. Bear in mind that you don't need to have data, in the strict sense, to do Data Storytelling. A set of achievements from the last quarter is data! Practice a little bit, get feedback from others, don't be afraid of doing different and excel on your next presentation!

And by the way, we used Excalidraw to draw our diagrams. It is a fantastic open-source tool!

Gousto Engineering & Data

Gousto Engineering & Data Blog

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