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Data storytelling: Using data to create a narrative

‘Data’ and ‘storytelling’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. We tend to think of data as cold, hard, and factual; storytelling, on the other hand, is creative, imaginative, and above all, human. The two concepts are worlds apart, right?

Perhaps in some quarters. But certainly not in the world of business, where the two meld together in perfect unison. Because we believe in treating each customer, or audience member as a human being – storytelling becomes even more important. It’s key to unlocking the authentic human experience of each person you connect with. 

In fact, data storytelling is an absolute treasure trove: unlocking the hidden messages and meaning behind the data, and presenting it in a language your stakeholders can relate to. So let’s take a look at what data storytelling actually is, explore the science behind why it works, and introduce you to some failsafe ways of using your data to tell a story worth listening to.

Buckle in and sit tight; we’re about to blow your mind!

What is data storytelling?

Put simply, data storytelling is a means of taking data and weaving it into an understandable narrative for its intended audience. Because while having data is all well and good, it loses its impact if it can’t be turned into something compelling.

Us humans have delighted in sharing stories since the beginning of time. It’s just what we do, and authors the world over are immeasurably happy about it. But storytelling doesn’t only belong in the pages of novels.

Now that the world has gone full-on, unavoidably, deep-seatedly digital, data storytelling stands strong as a beacon of hope for helping us to understand the increasingly complex and forever expanding levels of data available to us. Without it, we’d be in a bit of a tailspin.

(If this piques your interest, check out our webinar masterclass on Storytelling the human experience of data. In this masterclass, we show you how a handful of storytelling techniques can help you deliver compelling and actionable insights effortlessly.)

Data storytelling combines three key areas: data science (extracting vital knowledge and insight from data), visualizations (transforming that lovely rich data into charts and graphs to help us understand key findings), and narrative (translating knowledge, insight, and findings into a language we can understand and relate to). You’re speaking the language of humans, and telling the full story. 

Wonderful stuff, right?

You can use data storytelling internally to communicate why product iterations are needed, for example, or externally for convincing potential customers to invest in your products or services.

The science behind why storytelling works

Let’s face it: data can be incredibly dry; boring; yawn-inducing. Sometimes, it needs spicing up a bit to help us sit back and take note. We’re only human, after all – and how many story-loving humans can honestly lay claim to being gripped by the crustiness of tedious, monotonous, standalone data?

Stories, or narratives, help us to process information (data) far more easily than we would otherwise be able to. Even the analysts among us must admit that a little storyline can go a long way.

But why do our brains love stories so darn much?

Okay, time to get science-y. Our brains opt for stories over pure data because they are – quite frankly – overloaded to the max. We take in so much information day in, day out that somehow, our brains need to decide what to process, and what to forget. The cool thing about hearing a story is that different parts of our brains kick into action:

  1. Wernicke’s area: This controls language comprehension
  2. The amygdala: This processes our emotional response
  3. Mirror neurons: These help us to empathise with others

When these areas are all engaged, our hippocampus (which handles storing short-term memories) converts the narrative into a long-term memory. Amazing!

So instead of plonking a load of valuable data into a boring old spreadsheet and hoping that people somehow magically process it, connect with it, and remember it, you can trust to the immense power of data storytelling to engage parts of the brain, trigger an emotional response, and encourage action. It’s what makes us human, right?

How to tell a story with data

Right then, now you know why you should tell a story with your data, let’s tackle how you weave a beautifully compelling narrative out of plain old facts and figures.

Much like the stories you’re used to reading (or avoiding since school, if you’re not a book person), data storytelling draws on the self-same narrative components. In case you need a refresher, a good story calls for characters, a clear setting, conflict, and resolution (we hate an open ending).

To put this into a data-related context, let us walk you through a relatable scenario: you’ve carried out some stellar research to discover why your company is suffering from a drop in sales. The data you’ve gathered shows that this worrying decline is down to one of those pesky social media posts going wild after someone had a poor experience with your customer service team. You do a little digging (analyse the data) and find that customers aged 19-35 are boycotting your brand. Yikes!

So how do you communicate that to the stakeholders in your company?

Here’s how to turn your data-based insights into a compelling narrative:

  1. Craft your characters: The central characters in your story are the 19 to 35-year-old customers who are swerving your company due to a post about poor customer service. The stakeholders you’re presenting to should also be factored in, as the way you present your story will vary depending on your audience. You don’t need to talk about ‘characters’ in your presentation, but you need to have them clearly defined in your own mind.
  2. Establish a setting: If your audience is going to really buy into the story you’re trying to tell them, it’s crucial that you set the scene for them. In the case of our example, you’d do this by painting a picture of the situation you’re addressing – sales have fallen because a viral post about poor customer service has driven away customers between the ages of 19-35. To bring your story to life, you can use visualization (like graphs and charts) to show this drop in sales.
  3. Create the conflict: This is where you get to the heart of the matter. Your audience (stakeholders) need to understand the root issue, and what’s caused it. This would involve a deeper explanation of the social media post that went viral, because of a bad experience with a member of your company’s customer services team. To help illustrate the impact, you’d delve further into the importance of good customer service in today’s digitally led era, drawing on research to back up your findings and suggestions. Again, visualizations can really help here.
  4. End with resolution: We all like a story to end well; or at the very least, to end with a definite conclusion – and it’s no different when you’re telling a story through data. Once your audience has a clear understanding of the issue you’re illustrating, it’s time to propose both an immediate, and longer-term, solution. This will be based on your data, and likely factor in external research into how to improve customer service, along with public perception of customer service. Visualizations can be useful to prove the need for investment, or to justify certain actions.

Examples of effective data storytelling

Data storytelling isn’t solely the preserve of data analysts and a boardroom of top stakeholders; in fact, loads of companies use data storytelling to better engage consumers!

Ready to see some effective data storytelling in action? Let’s go!

Spotify: Your year, wrapped!

Popular music app Spotify likes to remind its users of just how much value and enjoyment their app has delivered throughout the year. With a slideshow that recaps the year gone by, Spotify users can see how many minutes they’ve spent listening to music on the app, which songs have had the most plays, and even their favourite genres. The combination of visualization and storytelling really helps to establish a connection between product and consumer – and by using data to tell stories about the customer, Spotify successfully creates clear stories about the brand itself.

Google: Year in Search!

Google’s ‘Year in Search’ campaign uses data to tell a story about top trends in the year gone by, and what that data tells us about “the questions we shared, the people who inspired us, and the moments that captured the world’s attention”. Google factors in its audience by making the videos easily consumable (between 1.5-3 minutes in length), whilst highlighting heart-warming news stories that help to establish a positive association with the brand. Visualizations are also used to perfect effect in a way that really connects with the audience.

Uber: Your Year in the Rear-View!

Data, narrative, and visuals all combine to create a story worth listening to in the hands of taxi service Uber. The brand employs data storytelling each year to illustrate just how much value its users get from the service – giving miles travelled, days since joining, and star status. To create a more compelling and engaging narrative, ‘miles travelled’ are likened to something far more fun than how far users have traversed across the city (such as how many Olympic-sized swimming pools, or trips around the moon!)

How can Forsta help?

Creating effective data storytelling shouldn’t be a chore. With Forsta’s infographic storytelling, we help you to take your boring black and white data and turn it into stories packed with colour.

Our software makes it easy to bring your data to life: illustrating your insight with infographics that inspire, explain, and convince people to act. Whether you want to show the steps in a customer journey, spotlight the true scale of a knotty issue, or reveal trends that are trapped in your data, we’ve got it covered.

Using drag-and-drop tools, design libraries and no-snags export, you can work fast to tell visual stories with impact. We’ll even plug your data directly into your graphics – saving you the tedium of manual entry, and reducing the risk of human error.

Ready to see what we’re all about? Book your free demo now, and start crafting your own bestseller.

It’s story time!

After reading all of that incredibly useful insight, we bet you’re chomping at the bit to get going with your own top notch narrative, right? If  this has whetted your appetite, be sure to check out our other blog on storytelling in market research for more insight into this technique.

If you’re still feeling a little reticent, that’s understandable, too. The concept of data storytelling can be a touch intimidating if you’re not natural-born storyteller, but the great news is, you really don’t have to be!

Give it a go, and don’t forget to reach out if you find yourself facing writer’s block…

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