Storytelling has been part of the human experience throughout the ages. It has been both the art and the success of cultures and traditions and is a method that we use to relate, encourage and persuade. Storytelling touches humans on an emotional level, which is a powerful way to convey something that is memorable. Taking the viewer on the journey with you is the fine art of persuasion.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

– Rudyard Kipling

For organizations, the challenge is often about bridging the gap between the numbers and the story that they want to tell. Data visualization allows the story to become visually appealing.  

Some of the key points we’ll address include:

  1. How Story Brings Powerful Meanings
  2. The Power of Knowing Your Audience
  3. Data Visualization Completes the Narrative
  4. Great Data Visualization
  1. How Story Brings Powerful Meanings

Jennifer L. Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford University created a video entitled Persuasion and the Power of Story”. Aaker emphasizes that good stories are memorable, impactful and personally connect with the viewer/listener.

Studies have shown that when people are shown statistics and then a story, only 5% remembered the stats, but 63% remembered the story. Other studies have recognized that statistics appeal to only a specific part of the brain; one that people understand on an intellectual level, but may not relate to. Stories tap into the emotional level and this brings both engagement and the ability to remember. Savvy marketers know that people will buy from a person or company whose story they believe in or resonates with them. There is a personal connection with a story that numbers don’t address.

When you blend data and story with interesting visuals and examples, readers become more engaged. They respond because it resonates with them on both the intellectual and emotional levels.

For those that love numbers, you need to temper the data with a sense of balance. Analyzying data might be a complex and long process but relaying it should be quick, timely and clear

2. The Power of Knowing Your Audience

We speak to people in different ways; age, demographics, and job titles or positions are just a few of the variables of presentation. Recognizing the audience is the key to not only how you will tell the story but the way that you can capture their attention and keep the information relevant and memorable.

Jim Stikeleather, Dell Executive Strategist wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “How to Tell a Story with Data.” He identified the five core audience types:

  1. The Novice is new to the subject but isn’t interested in anything that is oversimplified.
  2. The Generalist is aware of the topic but is looking for more of an overview as well as the major themes of the story.
  3. The Management has a desire for an in-depth and actionable comprehension of a story’s interrelationships and intricacies as well as access to the details.
  4. The Expert is interested in more discovery and exploration and less on the storytelling side.
  5. The Executive needs to know significance and conclusions of the weighted probabilities.

Knowing the audience is a critical piece of the presentation so that you can convey the right information in a way that will get seen and heard. 

3. Data Visualization Completes the Narrative

Many presenters understand the importance of analytical tools. There are pie charts, bar graphs, and tables that will list the numbers results. While these relate the exploration of the data, they fall flat when it comes to the narrative. The reason that so many rely on the cut and dry method is that it’s easier to crunch numbers than find the story.

Stanford researchers released a paper entitled, “Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data“, in which they discuss reader versus author-driven storytelling. As a narrative, the latter doesn’t give the reader the opportunity to interact with charts or graphs. The information and visualizations are selected by the author and given to the reader as a finished product. However, in a reader-driven narrative, they are provided with methods to ‘play’ inside the data. The fusion of the two concepts in data journalism is enabling both approaches to be used together. The researchers stated, “These two visual narrative genres, together with interaction and messaging, must balance a narrative intended by the author with story discovery on the part of the reader.”

An example of this is shown by Daniel Waisberg, an Analytics Advocate at Google and the Founder of Online Behavior. In his Tutorial on Visualization, he created an excellent way to use visuals in telling a story through the use of maps. He made use of a large data set that can be both transformed as well as incorporated as part of the story, taking the concept of graphs and charts to another level to bring value. The analytics are there, but the data is presented in interactive maps that are colorful and enticing

4. Great Data Visualization

Using data visualization as a secret weapon requires that great visuals need to stand on their own. The image must be able to tell the story and give the reader/viewer the ability to easily understand. The other important aspect of good data visualization is that it should include some layered data so that those that are curious can easily explore it.

We exist in a world of information overload world and this surrounds us with data ‘noise’. But the upside to this is the situation also leaves us open and vulnerable to storytelling. We block out the data overload but are receptive to stories. They help us in our decisions for what to believe in.

When you understand data visualization, you unlock the certain abilities by taking the viewer down the path of art to share relevant information that connects and entertains. What’s better than this? 

Image credit: Manoel Lemos

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