Almost everyone is a storyteller. Chances are, if you present information in one form or another—whether to the public or to your bosses—you already tell stories for a living.
Far from spinning false narratives, successful data storytelling is about using your data to craft the most palatable and comprehensible message that will reach and relate to your target audience. And, much like individuals, institutions also need to tell stories that matter.
To do that, institutions need to create visual design standards that accelerate the understanding and consumption of data, thereby allowing them to enjoy the benefits of data visualization. An example of one such company is the International Business Communications Standards (IBCS), a nonprofit organization that has established a comprehensive and detailed visual standard for designing both reports and presentations.
After all, there is mammoth responsibility attached to creating data visualizations, for all information has the potential to be turned into insight, and all insight into action. Some key things you need in your data storytelling arsenal include the right visual tools, a resounding truth to share, and an inherent curiosity about the world that pushes you to explore beyond the boundaries.
Additionally, arm yourself with these nine must-have pro tips, and you might soon be touted as a data visualization guru:
- Less is more. Make every pixel and word count.
A well-thought-out message has the ability to hit home with minimal graphics and text. Always aim to explain the concept without resorting to multiple charts and paragraphs to substantiate your point.
- Avoid decorative use of graphics.
Simply put, if a graphic serves no purpose in enhancing or explaining your message, it doesn’t belong in the report or presentation.
- Avoid three-dimensional chart types.
The added dimension or illusion reduces the visual precision of the chart. It is simply easier to measure or assess plotted data on a flat 2D chart.
- Avoid pie charts.
A quick Google search will show that pie charts are a no-go when presenting crucial information for various reasons. First, the different slices on pie charts usually contain meaningless color. Second, labels for each slice are usually messy, especially when documenting percentages. As a visual tool, they require additional study if the information isn’t explicitly obvious. Third, when slices of similar value aren’t placed adjacent to each other, it can be hard to tell which is of greater value. In short, pie charts are not easy on the eye.
- Start bar charts at zero.
When bar charts don’t start at zero, it is easy to mislead audiences with erroneous information because this allows data analysts to exaggerate small differences.
- To save space, use bullet graphs instead of gauges.
Not only do gauges force audiences to compare angles, as compared to bullet graphs where they compare lengths and parallel positions, bullet graphs are able to effectively convey the necessary information within a smaller space. This helps produce reports and presentations that are sleek and compact.
- Use sparklines to show trends on the x-axis.
Patterns can be hard to spot at a glance, if data is only presented in tables. To remedy this, you can highlight the context for these data numbers by inserting sparklines next to the data. Sparklines display trends based on adjacent data in a clear and compact graphical representation.
- Show time going from left to right on the x-axis.
As a general rule of thumb, place your independent variable (the “cause” in a “cause and effect” relationship) on the x-axis. Most equations involving time show how other variables react in relation to the passage of time. It is common to place time on the x-axis, and moving left to right is inherently understood to represent an ascending value of time passed.
9. Use color only to highlight or accentuate meaning.
Unnecessary embellishment only serves to confuse the audience. When in doubt, ask yourself if the message could still be clearly understood if you did not use colors. If so, remove all colors in the name of pure aesthetic purpose.
If there’s any common theme to these guidelines for data storytelling, it’s “keep it simple.” Wise words.
For more information on why data visualization is critical for your business, download the Data Storytelling Handbook.
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