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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but data storytelling is the key to persuasion

Sarah Carney from industry partner, Microsoft, shares 5 tips on how to create simple yet memorable stories using data.

Data is the lifeblood of modern enterprises and governments alike. Used well, it can drive precise decision making, provide insights into the past and enable us to peek into the future. The challenge of course is that most people take one look at a database, excel spreadsheet or fiscal report and their eyes start to glaze over. The deluge of data and information that we are exposed to every day can overwhelm us, preventing us from seeing the real insights or using that data as effectively as we could. 

With so many competing demands on our time and attention, this is where data storytelling comes into its own. Great data storytelling enables people to absorb, understand, connect with and act more effectively on the critical data they are being shown. It can turn dry and complex data into compelling and engaging stories that communicate effectively and inspire action. It is not just about creating charts and graphs, but about finding the story behind the data, and crafting a narrative that resonates with your audience. Data storytelling is not just a skill, but perhaps an underrated art form, and we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words!

When used effectively, data storytelling has the power to:

  • Capture attention and interest: Humans are naturally drawn to stories, especially those that involve emotions, conflicts and resolutions. A good data story can hook the audience from the start and keep them interested throughout.
  • Simplify complexity and ambiguity: Data can be overwhelming and confusing, especially when there is a lot of it. A compelling data story can filter out the noise and focus on the signal, highlighting the key insights and trends that matter. It also enables you to bring together seemingly unrelated data sets to create new insights. 
  • Enhance understanding and retention: Data can be abstract and hard to grasp, especially when it involves numbers, formulas and statistics. A good data story can make data more concrete and relatable, using metaphors, analogies and examples to illustrate the points.
  • Inspire action and change: Data can be passive and inert, unless it is linked to a purpose and a goal. A good data story can motivate the audience to act on the data, by showing them the implications, consequences and opportunities of the data.

Data storytelling is better than just sharing a pile of data points, because data alone is not enough to persuade, inform or influence the audience. Data needs purpose, context, meaning and relevance to make an impact. Data storytelling provides that missing link, by transforming data into a compelling and actionable story.

So how do you create a simple and memorable story from data?

People often think that data storytelling is all about building beautiful charts and diagrams, and although those elements are helpful, great data storytelling is more about the narrative you weave and the way you use data as part of that. Below are the five steps I think about when trying to persuade my audience.

  1. Know your audience. Before you start crafting your data story, you need to understand who you are talking to, what they care about, what they already know and what they need to know. This will help you tailor your data story to their interests, expectations and level of expertise. Also think about how they will receive your message and any resistance or concerns they might have. These insights are critical to shaping an effective narrative.
  2. Curate your data. You need to select the data sources that will support your story, ensuring that they are credible, reliable and accurate. You also need to clean, validate and analyse the data to extract the insights you need. 
  3. Develop your narrative. You now need to weave your insights into a coherent and engaging narrative. You need to create a story arc that takes your audience on a logical and easy to follow journey. Paint a picture of why you are telling them the story, why it matters to them. Great stories have tension or conflict – what is the problem you are all facing, what is challenging your organisation, what don’t they know that you have uncovered in the data? It is that tension that grabs the audience’s attention. Build that tension into your narrative, but make sure you reach a conclusion, a set of next steps, or recommend how to move forward; don’t leave them hanging! 
  4. Find your STAR. I usually have a few points I want to land in any story I tell, but within those, I try and find just one STAR – Something They’ll Always Remember. This could be your call to action, what you want the audience to do with the information you have shared or the one big point you want them to tell everyone else about. If you have clarity around what your STAR is, you can build a much more compelling story. 
  5. Build your visualisations. The last thing I do is build the imagery that will accompany my story. Simplicity is key. There is a tendency to want to put all your data into the key charts or diagrams. Again, refer back to your audience and how the story will be delivered. If you are presenting this directly to the audience, too much data on the slide will distract them and they won’t be listening to you. If it will be delivered in a report format, include just enough data to give them context and include anything else in an appendix. Too many data points and people will tune out, missing your key messages. If design skills aren’t your thing, never fear, you can always seek our help and inspiration using a range of built in suggestions within the tools you are using, or brainstorm ideas using generative AI.

Data storytelling is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice and feedback. By following these tips and best practices, you can create data stories that will captivate, enlighten and inspire your audience. Remember, keep your story simple, focus on the STAR and make it memorable. Happy data storytelling!

Sarah Carney head shot

Sarah is the Chief Technology Officer for RMIT Online's industry partner, Microsoft ANZ, where she leads the technical strategy, vision, and execution for our largest and most strategic customers. Prior to Microsoft Sarah served in the Australian army, followed by a decade travelling the world and working across a broad range of industries in both Europe and the Middle East. She has supported Think Tanks, built custom business applications and attended ballet for a living. Her varied experience and perspective across industries brought her back to Australia, first to telecommunications, and then to IT.

This article was originally published on 1 July 2024