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Data Storytelling: How to Turn Numbers into Compelling Business Narratives

Interested in learning how to use data storytelling to your advantage. Get started with our guide to start telling effective stories with data.

While data scientists may revel in increasingly easy access to numbers (and tools for manipulating them into valuable insights), numbers are inherently limited for one simple reason: while they have the potential to reveal what's happening, they fall short of explaining why they matter.

Sure, you can throw out numbers and hope they’ll speak for themselves. But this is a significant risk to take when you’re running a business—especially when you could turn those numbers into a compelling narrative instead.

Here’s another way to look at it: Why hope your target audience will make sense of the numbers when you can use them to convey an engaging and meaningful message?

Enter data storytelling.

Rather than relying on numbers to do all the work, data storytelling harnesses the potential of numbers for improving communication, building relationships, fueling insights, and producing results.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at what data storytelling is and why it matters. You’ll also learn more about what makes a good data story, tips for how to tell a story with data, and tools, services, and resources to reach your organizational goals.

What is data storytelling?

Numbers are powerful. However, numbers can also be both overwhelming and inaccessible.

That’s where data storytelling comes in. A natural byproduct of the big data evolution, data storytelling involves shaping numbers into a simple and streamlined narrative crafted to resonate with a particular audience.

Data strategy expert Brent Dykes explains, “The skill of data storytelling is removing the noise and focusing people’s attention on the key insights.”

Wondering what differentiates data storytelling from data visualization? Much like the illustrations in a book, data visualizations are visual displays that underscore important points and promote understanding. However, they don’t do the heavy lifting of weaving the data points into a cohesive and pointed story.

In other words, data visualizations can be crucial components in data storytelling alongside other elements like data selection, analysis, and organization; contextual analysis; structure, narration, and presentation. Together, these elements add up to a data story that's accessible, relevant, and engaging.

Why is data storytelling important?

Humans have been sharing stories for as far back as 30,000 years, and not just for entertainment, either.

Compelling stories help us understand and retain information. They can also make data-driven findings more persuasive and impactful while making their implications accessible to a broader audience. Finally, storytelling enhances collaboration, teamwork, and decision-making by ensuring everyone is on the same page and optimally engaged.

These same benefits apply to telling stories with data. Your customers aren’t left with a surplus of numbers but rather with data insights that speak directly to their questions, wants, needs, and goals.

Combining numbers with a narrative is also symbiotic. Using numbers supports your claims, boosts your credibility, and builds trust. In addition to helping your brand stand out with consumers, it can also generate awareness and even catch the attention of the media, influencers, and new audience members.

Meanwhile, data storytelling is important because of its versatility for businesses looking to do more with less. It can be used and repurposed into many formats and communication channels—whether it be a case study, brochure, white paper, pitch deck, social media post, or webpage.

How to tell a good data story

You’ve probably heard your fair share of stories over the years. While some of them are unforgettable, others seem endless—and not in a good way. That’s because all stories aren’t created equal.

While having relevant and interesting information to share is important, it’s far from the only factor that determines whether a story is “good” or “bad.” Other aspects of good stories include having a beginning, middle, and end (i.e., they’re not merely anecdotal); they have meaning; they’re thoughtfully structured and have a good ending.

Good data storytelling is similar. Wondering how to tell a story with data? Here are a few steps you can take:

1. Find the stories within your data

Two of Michelangelo's most famous quotes are, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” and “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculpture to discover it.”

While Michelangelo was talking about his artistic process, he could also have been talking about uncovering critical insights for data stories. With the right metrics and analytics, the stories worth telling already exist within your data. It’s your job to find them.

The following questions can help you uncover a narrative within your data:

Who is your target audience?

  • What are their wants and needs?
  • What information are they looking for?
  • Which data points speak to these questions?

What are your goals?

  • What information do you want to convey to your target audience?
  • What actions/results are you hoping to drive?
  • Which data points relate to these goals?

What is the data telling you?

  • What interesting correlations or casual links have emerged?
  • What do these connections mean for your target audience and organizational goals?

Sometimes, a compelling story will emerge from the data because of its obvious potential. In other cases, you must dig deeper into meaningful relationships, patterns, and themes.

2. Create and structure your narrative

How you structure the narrative is instrumental to making your data meaningful. After you’ve honed in on the story you want to tell and the data sets you’ll use to tell it, it’s time to work on your narrative.

Traditional story plot lines contain exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Compelling data stories also have “plots” crafted to support a satisfying audience journey. Typical elements include an introduction with a hook, background and context, a conflict or pain point, and resolution.

In other words, it’s not enough to provide useful data. You must also strategically organize that data in a way that keeps the audience engaged and the story moving forward to an actionable conclusion.

3. Leverage visuals

Earlier, we touched on the difference between data storytelling and data visualization. When integrated into data storytelling, visuals like line charts, bar charts, tables, maps, infographics, and animations can amplify your message's impact.

Not sure which data points will best translate to visualizing data? Common data-driven visualizations focus on trends, comparisons, rankings, and statistical relationships. Counterintuitive data can help create stories that are especially evocative.

Another thing to keep in mind when incorporating visuals? Visual branding. As with all of your marketing materials, the visuals you select for a data story should align with your brand’s visual identity.

Tips for effective data storytelling

If you’re ready to tell a story with your data, here are a few tips that can help you:

Know your audience

The importance of knowing your audience cannot be overstated. The more you know about your audience, the better you’ll be able to identify the most meaningful data and “carve” it into the most compelling narrative.

Use high-quality, relevant data

While high-quality, relevant data adds value, low-quality and irrelevant data can have the opposite impact. Not only will it add up to an ineffective data story, but it also jeopardizes your relationship with your target audience. After all, if you waste their time with outdated, inaccurate data or content that doesn't apply to them, you’ll lose their trust.

Provide a clear narrative

Without a clear and strong narrative, the most fascinating data may be rendered mute. Marketers can agree that a data story without a captive audience is meaningless.

Creating an outline can help you give structure to your narrative. Once you’ve decided how your key points and ideas will fit and flow, you can formulate where visuals and other elements will be beneficial.

Even better than an outline? Use a storyboard for your business. These “story sketches” provide a visual walk-through of your narrative.

Be human

While data can be dense, scientific, and technical, the information you convey should be understandable and accessible. This is heavily reliant on your audience. After all, a target audience made up of rocket science experts will have a different baseline level of comprehension than one made up of middle schoolers. This brings us back to your audience, which should dictate what you say and how you say it.

That said, your audience is human, presumably. Regardless of the specifics of your target audience, emotions play a pivotal role in all data-driven storytelling. When turning numbers into a narrative, be sure to put yourself in the shoes of your audience: what will speak to their hearts and minds?

Kill your darlings

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’re probably familiar with the advice to “kill your darlings.” This means that even if you’ve worked really hard on a particular element of your story or love it very much, you may sometimes have to get rid of it if it doesn’t serve the overall story.

Such is the case with telling stories with data. You may feel compelled to jam-pack your story with as much hard data as possible. However, if it doesn’t connect with the meaning of your story, let it go.

In addition to editing out extraneous data, you should take the same approach with your writing and presentation. Avoid fluff to minimize distractions and keep the focus on your message.

Try and try again

There’s no single-best way to deliver information or visualize data. Experimenting with different and unique visuals can help you better understand how your data looks from different viewpoints.

Use your data to build meaningful stories

One of the most exciting things about data-driven storytelling in marketing is that anyone can tell a great narrative as long as they have high-quality information. With the right business intelligence tools, you can craft an engaging story that drives your organization to success.

If you need relevant data to enhance your storytelling efforts, use the Mailchimp audience dashboard to uncover key metrics within your marketing campaigns.

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