“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov wrote to his brother in 1886, “show me the glint of the light on broken glass.”
Of course, Chekhov was talking about literature and great writing, but inadvertently, the legendary wordsmith captured the very essence of data visualization. We, as humans, don’t want to be told about something – we want to see it in action, we want to bear witness to the process as it unfolds over time. This – traditionally – is what we respond best to.
And the same is true for the highly competitive worlds of content marketing, sales and product pitching, in which the power of persuasion is everything. It is not enough simply to tell our content users, prospective customers or potential investors about the worth we can offer, we need to show them. We need to demonstrate this worth.
The Dynamism of Visualization
In 2010, Swedish health expert Dr Hans Rosling illustrated the true potential of data visualization in bringing cold statistics to life. In a demonstration that was broadcast on British television, he drew a graph in which countries were plotted along the axis of life-expectancy and average income. Certainly important data, but data which is inherently dry, and somewhat difficult to present with passion and zeal.
However, Dr Rosling was able to subvert this. By extrapolating his data visualization through the years of the 19th and 20th centuries, the data was brought to life, giving the doctor the opportunity to explore the social and economic fluctuations experienced by different countries at different points across this time frame.
It is this idea of movement over time which makes visualization such an exciting field. Even taken outside of an orators forum like a business presentation or speech, movement can still be injected into data. For example, the action of adding freezeframes or snapshots of different data points at different times, and showing a customer or investor a pattern of growth, is tapping into the same sense of dynamism.
Demonstrating data successfully – through visualization – is about finding these additional dimensions and leading your audience to them.
So how does this apply to business? In fact, it applies almost seamlessly.
Let’s take the example of Steve; a B2B software vendor demonstrating the power of his product in the form of a case study, which is then delivered as part of Steve’s content marketing strategy. The case study is data rich – it is overflowing with the kinds of facts and figures that business owners look for when purchasing software – but is this enough?
No one is disputing the value of Steve’s data, and no one is disputing the fact that, if consumed, the data will demonstrate beyond doubt that Steve’s software is the ideal choice for businesses across the world. The operative word here is ‘if’; while data presented in its long form is a vital resource, it does not grab the attention, nor does it inspire the imagination.
To put it simply, if left as it is, the only people who are going to get their teeth into Steve’s case study are his already signed, sealed and delivered converts. In an increasingly accelerated consumer culture, the case study is going to struggle to get the attention it needs.
By selecting key data points and focusing on these, Steve can apply the principles of data visualization to his case study, just like Dr Rosling did when he brought his health/wealth graph to life. From here it is all about juxtaposition; an infographic displaying customer retention rates prior to utilizing Steve’s software juxtaposed with an infographic displaying customer retention rate increases in the months after adoption.
A progression has been illustrated – a simple equation of A + B = C, with Steve’s software as the magic ingredient. The tool used to illustrate this was data visualization.
Building the Narrative
What we are doing here is creating something fundamental to human nature, and something that content marketers and business leaders are increasingly tuning in to; narrative. Here, Steve has created the thin, skeletal structure of a narrative, a story within which his software product is the hero. Sure, it’s not going to be winning an Academy Award any time soon, but it is serving its purpose; it is demonstrating worth.
We can flesh out the bones of a narrative like this one even further by adding more data points. The firm’s customer retention rate before and after the implementation of the software is already included, but what about average customer retention rates across the industry? By adding this dimension, the case study becomes not simply about Steve and his clients but about you, the reader, too.
Now we are building towards a crescendo, so we can conclude with a true demonstration of the value of what Steve’s software provides. This can be expressed in an inforgraphic which examines whole lifetime customer values, the cost of re-engaging a customer lost to churn, or the ease with which a returning customer can be marketed to when compared with a cold lead.
This is the power of narration; of storytelling with the data at hand.
The Data Tidal Wave
Perhaps it all feels a little dramatic. That’s because it is; it has to be. Modern business is simply too competitive, too accelerated, for slow-burning pitches to take center stage when immediate demonstration of worth and value is required. The dramatic nature of data visualization makes it perfect for this purpose.
In our rush to become data-driven and plugged into the hustle and bustle of global discourse, we have become swamped with data. This is not to suggest that such data-centricity is a negative thing, or that organizations shouldn’t develop the data resources at their disposal – undoubtedly, they should – but they should put more care and consideration into how best to deploy this data.
Just like Dr Rosling with his evolving charts and graphs, just like Chekhov with his ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’, and just like Steve with his progression of data, we are in the business of building narratives – what that narrative says to your customers is up to you.