How to Craft an Engaging Data Story

Striking the right balance between data and narrative.

Allen Hillery
Aug 31, 2020 · 5 min read
Narrative + Visuals = Engage Clear and concise communication along with impactful visualization draws the audience in and grabs their attention. This visual portrays the actions of staying nimble and thinking outside the box. It sets the tone for our story. Illustration by Veronika Hammond

Crafting a story around data may seem like an unnecessary, time consuming effort. The insights may seem sufficient to stand on their own but this is a flawed point of view. Our decisions are not based solely on logic. When you tell a story with data, you create a shared human experience. We tend to believe that numbers alone drives our decision making. Now more than ever a company’s survival will require disruptive change and that will call for inspiring employees and consumers to act in unfamiliar and untraditional ways. This involves combining data, emotion and empathy to tell a well balanced story.

Our opening visual captures the audience’s attention and sets the tone for our story. As the soccer player dribbles the ball across a subway platform, a train pulls into the station. The player makes a split second decision and leaps across the platform! Just as athletes are trained to think strategically and shift course when necessary, so must leaders. They must respond quickly to identify changes that can either serve as inspiration to shake up their industry or wreak havoc on their market share.

Data and Narrative Connect The Rational And Emotional Brain

Visuals + Data = Enlighten — Creating a visualization with data begins to create aha moments of insight. Uber came into the market with a lot of bright ideas and aggressive growth but had a lot of internal challenges they needed to solve. Illustration by Veronika Hammond

Uber’s stock performance can be portrayed as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you prioritize aggressive growth above all else. They had a steady rise coming out the gate during their debut on the stock market. They soon became blinded by competitiveness and lost their focus on the customer. UBER concentrated on disruption and ride efficiency to the point where it pitted itself against the drivers, customers and communities they claimed to serve. Over time with the installment of a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, the internal culture began to change starting with an updated company value statement. Showing the winding curve of UBER’s stock price combined with the annotations adds drama while explaining the downward and upward trends.

Narrative + Data = Explain — Providing context for your data makes it clear what it is and why it’s important. Tesla’s stock chart shows the commitment to their mission of creating affordable vehicles has been steady and unwavering. The visual also gives a nod to their goal of enabling the colonization of Mars. Illustration by Veronika Hammond

Tesla Motors has been steadily innovating and building a sports car to accelerate the day of electric vehicles. They are a clean energy company that prides themselves on breaking the conventional thinking of the automotive industry. Despite several challenges, Tesla has shown success by being transparent about their vision, challenges and using differentiation in their marketing strategy. Looking at Tesla’s stock chart, we see ups and downs but not any dramatic dips or peaks compared to Uber. Tesla tells a story of perseverance. Their commitment to creating affordable mass market electric vehicles has been unwavering.

Stories Engage Your Audience Beyond The Facts

Transfer to Uber? — When creating visuals to tell a story you want to spark emotions to engage the audience. This sparks your imagination to think outside the box. Imagine if NYC subway service was augmented by UBER cars to reduce overcrowding and delays. Illustration by Veronika Hammond.

When creating visuals to tell a story you want to spark emotions to engage the audience. What if Uber was easily accessible at major NYC subway stations to minimize extensive passenger delays and used Tesla cars to take customers to their final destination? What if Uber and Tesla partner with local governments to solve local transportation issues?

Although good business arguments are developed through the use of numbers, they are typically approved on the basis of a story. When reading straight data, only the language parts of our brains work to decode the meaning. But when we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brains light up, but any other part of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about becomes activated as well This means it’s far easier for us to remember stories than hard facts.

Putting It All Together And Creating Change

Narrative + Visuals + Data = Change — Studies show that our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than by cold hard facts. Stories build a connection to the audience and can ultimately persuade them.

Combining data, emotions, and empathy as part of a narrative is something every company should learn to internalize. Analysis might excite the mind but it hardly offers a route to the heart. Making a pitch for UBER and Tesla to team up with NYC Transit to improve subway ridership is a disruptive idea that’s going to take a lot of convincing! Our story of innovation and disruption depicts the nimbleness of an athlete thinking outside of the box and shifting gears when necessary. This approach most likely would appeal to inspirational executives in senior leadership. Combining these emotions with data creates a more solid proposal as we begin to analyze UBER and Tesla’s performance to gauge how viable a partnership could be. More information will obviously be needed to make a decision but hopefully senior leadership is intrigued and excited by the idea to begin advocating for the transportation initiative. This is one of the reasons it’s important to enter the heart of your listeners through data storytelling to get it to their brains, especially where disruptive change is required.

Check out my article on the Three Reasons Why Storytelling is Important in Business. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @AlDataVizGuy!

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Allen Hillery

Written by

Creating transcendent stories that share the importance of data narratives and how they impact our world. Twitter: @aldatavizguy

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

Allen Hillery

Written by

Creating transcendent stories that share the importance of data narratives and how they impact our world. Twitter: @aldatavizguy

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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