A Review of ‘Storytelling With Data’

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s book is an accessible resource for data viz practitioners, clients, and everyone in between.

Charles Saulnier
Sep 23 · 5 min read

Three years ago, I was at a career crossroad. As a BI consultant, I had developed reports for different clients for a while. I always got rave reviews as a trainer while training staff on tools like Excel, SSRS, and Power BI, but started noticing that people still went back to their old ways once the training was over. As a developer (I could not dare call myself a designer then!), I was frustrated that, more often than not, my work was not adopted more widely. People were often only using these reports to extract data and not as information and decision tools.

I realized that while I was good at building reports, I needed resources to design something that would suit my audience’s expressed and unconscious needs, and lead to REAL adoption. I started digging for resources, and even went back to school! There, I had my real eye-opener during a dashboarding class: Good reports are not only technical products, but they delicately balance data, design, human cognition and computer science. I couldn’t master all that overnight, but I knew I had to get better at communicating with data if I were to see the value in my work.

The cover of storytelling with data
The cover of storytelling with data
Knaflic, Cole. Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Wiley, © 2015.

In comes Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, a book that is accessible for beginners, covers a lot of the essentials on data visualization, and can be shared with colleagues and stakeholders that do not have a clue about data viz. In the two years I have had it, it still remains the first book I recommend to colleagues who want to know more about visualization, whether they are designers or not.

Why this book? Its structure is oriented toward practical data viz, which is very well-suited to a business setting. Chapters are relatively short and on-topic, and geared toward communication and the importance of context. It’s a book that could easily be marketed as teaching.

A simple plan to illustrate storyboarding — Knaflic, Cole. Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Wiley, © 2015.

One concept in particular, the Big Idea, struck me: explain your visual’s so-what? in a single sentence that (1) articulates your unique point of view, (2) conveys what’s at stake and (3) consists of a complete sentence. I now keep it in mind when I design anything to judge whether my goal is clear to the audience. For instance, I now add my Big Idea to the comments on the first slide of my Powerpoint presentations, and return to it as I build the slides to make sure I stay on point, and that everything I add supports it. For visuals or dashboards, I try to summarize it mostly through titles, such as in this simple graph from a dashboard on ice cream sales:

Not the most surprising insight for ice cream sales, but the takeaway is clear!

The other main selling point for me is the way Cole lets us in on her thought process when building or making over graphs. Books often show you the before and after; I find it considerably more enlightening when you can see iterations and why they were not kept as the final solution. A full chapter is dedicated to case studies, which are often absent from more academic works.

A step by step example of decluttering a graph — Knaflic, Cole. Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Wiley, © 2015.

Its strength may also be its main weakness: By covering all essential topics of visualization in a language suited for a business audience, it never delves that deeply into any of them. I would say that once you have experience with Gestalt principles, pre-attentive attributes, and high data visualization literacy, you’re no longer the target audience for this book. If you are looking for a resource on dashboards in particular, there are other books to turn to. It can be used as a stepping stone to books dedicated to more academic subjects such as human perception, user-centered design, etc., once you feel you have mastered their basics.

In summary, I definitely recommend Storytelling with Data as part of any aspiring (and seasoned) data viz practitioner’s library. If you want to make clients and colleagues understand the value of well-designed graphs, charts, and reports, it will be an amazing resource. It is great at explaining relatively complex concepts in a language both designers and business professionals will understand.

You may turn to other books and authors as you get more experienced and want to develop specific areas of your data viz skill-set. But you will not find many books around that are as accessible as this one and allow you to talk about visualization in a language your loved ones will understand. It was my first professional purchase, and I have never regretted it!

For those interested, the storytelling with data website is ripe with additional content, and the monthly #SWDchallenge pushes all participants to hone their skills, challenge assumptions, and try new tools and methods. A follow-up book, storytelling with data: let’s practice!, will also be published later this fall.

Reference : NUSSBAUMER KNAFLIC, Cole. Storytelling with data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals. John Wiley and Sons, New Jersey, 2015. ISBN 10 : 1119002257

An enormous thank you to Jason Forrest for helping me build the nerve for my first publication. Additional thanks to Elijah Meeks and Isaac Levy-Rubinett for their help making this more reader-friendly!


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Charles Saulnier

Written by

Manager @LarochelleGC. Always looking to improve my viz and design skills, and share my passion with anyone who will hear me out :)


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade