In a conversation, it was discovered that a vital aspect of communication was missing. Data has a story to tell, but many never know the story or have never figured out how to tell the story properly. Either way, the reports containing data fail to capture the audience’s attention, lose the audience, or fail, thus making the process of collecting, analyzing, and using the data useless! Hence my aim here is to aid you in improving your storytelling power and, by doing so, increase the credibility and usefulness of your data to convince your audience.
We must bow to a truth; data does nothing, proves nothing, and cannot convince anyone. All data can do is support a proposed course of action. Hence, the data is reliant upon the story, and the story is reliant upon the data. This principle cannot be stressed enough or more emphatically. Let me illustrate.
Here is some data:
Even with column and row headers, this data is useless. It is trying to tell a story, it is reporting symbols correctly, and the data is an accurate indication of work occurring; but, where is the value of the data? What can you surmise from this information? What trends are happening? Are the trends good or ill? What good will having this data do for you without an explanation about each row, each column, and a basic understanding of how each data point was collated? How is the data read, right to left, top to bottom, left to right, bottom to top, or some other way? You have all the data you need in this table to make several decisions, plotting multiple courses of action, but how do you know what to do?
Hence the truth; data does nothing, proves nothing, and cannot convince anyone. All data can do is support a proposed course of action. Therefore, the data is reliant upon the story, and the story is reliant upon the data. This principle cannot be stressed enough or more emphatically. When in doubt, always return to this truth about data. If the data is incoherent, sometimes the story can make up the slack and convince. If the story is confusing, the data cannot take up the slack. Worse, if the data and the story are incoherent, time and resources were wasted.
I mentioned storytelling with data, and the person I was talking to seemed perplexed. No, the story does not begin, “Once upon a time, in a far off land, there lived….” Nor should the story begin, “Column A is aggregate data pulled from …” What we are discussing is finding a medium between these two extremes where the data’s story can begin, without compromising the veracity, but still keeping the audience’s attention. Believe it or not, storytelling begins with planning, and planning starts with selecting the audience.
Planning: Selecting the Audience
The first question every writer must address is, “Who is your primary audience?” For children’s books, the answer is simple, choose an age group of children, and voila, you have a primary audience. For adults, the decision tree is a little more complicated. For example, is your primary audience expert-level professionals, graduate students, baccalaureate students, high school graduates, or seasoned professionals without a degree? Is the primary audience vendors, stakeholders, employees, engineers, a mix of all, none of the above, politicians, lawyers, judges, doctors, etc.? Until you know the audience, you will not know how to address the audience, what language to use, the grammar, the syntax, and the vocabulary. All of which require planning to capture the audience’s attention and tell the story successfully.
I choose to write for general audiences, using plain language principles, for my intended audience are experienced professionals, adults, and general people. I make this choice not for ease of writing but for the enjoyment of communicating. In this blog writing forum, it is better to be plain and speak simply than trying and peg a specific audience. I presume you already know many principles, and my job is to flush those principles into current memory and help build on what you know. I also suspect you know how to use a search engine to gain additional information if you so desire.
Hence, making choices about your primary audience is critical to how you address your audience. When using data to convince the audience to take action, you will also need to plan how and when to use the data. But, before you use the data, you must tell the audience how the data was gathered, how it was analyzed, and why these are important to know.
Planning: Data – Gathering, Analyzing, Presenting
Consider the table above; without dollar signs, how can you tell which fields represent dollars? Without percentages, how many fields represent a percentage? The presentation might not be everything in data storytelling, but it is definitely a significant part of the task. Hence, there should be a plan to present the data long before the first pieces of data are gathered or analyzed. Primarily if the data consists mainly of numbers, for numbers are merely symbols and can mean anything!
Gathering data is all about relating how the numbers originated. Not created, originated; creation implies the numbers were made up; origin implies the numbers existed and were discovered. Choose your descriptive words carefully in storytelling, especially where numbers originate. Each number is a symbol representing something; hence, each number requires an explanation of its origin story and value to the results. Never forget, if you have 100 number columns and 200 rows, you will need at a minimum 100 explanations and origin stories.
Analyzation, what tools helped you crunch the numbers? Any regression, statistical analysis, any bell curves, remember, each instrument used will need an origin story and purpose for use. Each tool will have a preferred method for presentation, does the presentation clash with other numbers being represented? Are tables too complex due to the number symbols and presentation demands? When writing the origin story, the clarity in telling the story is discovered in the origin stories, so make sure you understand how the data is to be presented.
How will the final report be given, PowerPoint, Prezi, Adobe PDF, MS Word, Email, Conference Room deliverable, Web Chat, etc.? The presentation of the final product dictates what goes into the story, how graphs and charts are used, the language employed, body language in presenting the data, and a host of other decisions. Yet, too often, this planning step is neglected to the end of the process. Then massive changes have to be made to the product on the fly, creating confusion, wasting resources, and creating stress and problems unnecessarily. Before the story’s first words are told, decide how the final product will be presented, right alongside the primary audience, and how the product will be delivered, it will save time and resources!
Convince – Don’t Prove
You intend to convince an audience that the proposed course of action is the best course of action. Data can never prove anything! The story must convince a course of action, and a decision tree is appropriate; thus, the storyteller must tell the audience why! Why is this course of action the best? Why is another method of effort not to be considered? Why should other courses of action not be undertaken or explored? Why? Why? Why? When in doubt, circle back to the unalterable truth discussed in the beginning, data does nothing, proves nothing, and by itself cannot convince anyone of anything.
Convincing the audience is the storyteller’s job. The data is there to assist, provided it has been properly introduced, correctly presented, and described with aplomb. Then, the data can be an effective tool to carry the day and aid in convincing decision-makers (people) that a course of action is correct. Failure of the story, failure to explain the data, and your efforts are wasted and the proposed course of action not taken seriously.
Please note, these are the basics of using data to tell a story. Experience and time are harsh taskmasters, and they will teach advanced courses in using data to tell a story. However, understanding these basics will keep you from learning through failure while being taught the advanced skills in storytelling using data. One final aspect of planning involves language, especially grammar and the technical aspects of writing. If you do not know the language, find a native speaker to review the presentation before publication and delivery. Get to know tools available to aid in proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Your diligence in learning technical skills in communicating will pay dividends for good or ill. Invest wisely!
© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.