3 Key Elements of Powerful Data-Driven Storytelling

A key trend over the last several years is the increase in readily available data that organizations can access (at your fingertips) and analyze on a timely basis to make decisions.  Robust data analytics tools have dramatically improved — and will continue to optimize — how companies make decisions. Another trend that is gaining momentum is Data-driven storytelling.

What is it?

Sometimes referred to as narrative visualization, data-driven storytelling is the result of combining the discipline of storytelling with the possibilities of data visualization. Put another way, while data on its own is valuable, it comes to life when it can be woven into a compelling narrative and then navigates the audience to a point of discovery. This narrative, like any great story, makes data more engaging and digestible, which in turn leads to insights for decision making.

Of course, that description is an oversimplification of what can be a lengthy process. After all, for a story to resonate with a particular audience, there are numerous elements that must be taken into consideration. As part of our Power BI series of classes the first course — Power BI for Excel 2013 – Level 1 – Report Builders breaks the elements down in detail and gives you everything you need to get started with data-driven storytelling.  In this post, I’d like to focus on three key elements that are required to craft any great narrative visualization.

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  1. Data Collection, Audience Selection, and Expectation Setting

This might seem obvious, but the process of gathering the right data and facts, and defining the target audience is often more complex than it seems. Poorly selected data or irrelevant facts will lead to an ineffective narrative, while lack of clarity around your target audience — and its expectations — can undermine the relevancy of the story.

Data Relevancy is the process of making the accumulated data relevant to the audience.  This is typically the responsibility of business specialists or report builders.  These individuals are well aware of the way that the business functions and what constitutes an actionable outcome.  These actionable outcomes become key factors in every narrative visualization.  The report builders are responsible for making meaningful connections between what the business thinks and what the data proves.

Part of making meaningful connections for decisions making is knowing your audience and what they know and their current views about the topic. The goal here is tell the story in a way that allows for their views to be validated, while at the same time showing the data which supports actions to reach particular outcomes.

  1. Visual Storyboarding

In order to present a well-thought-out position using visualizations, great care must be taken with the type of visualizations you use and the order in which you present them. This is where storyboarding — the process of drafting or sketching your vision for the narrative — comes in. You might choose to use frames like movie makers do, which include drawings of the layout of each report along with descriptions of the facts that will be established using that report. Alternatively, you could use an Excel workbook to outline the reports and facts just as easily.

Regardless of the method you choose, your goal with storyboarding should be to think of each report as a scene or an act in a play.  Your storyboard needs to include each report, in the order that it will be presented, along with the narration that should be included.

  1. Narrative Flow

Think for a moment about how the best stories are structured. Often, they begin with an opening that introduces the narrative, they continue with character and plot developments that build the story, they pivot with a plot twist that creates conflict or drama, and they close with a conclusion that leaves the audience begging for more. This narrative flow is compelling for a reason, which is why you should try to adapt it to the data-driven story you’re trying to tell.

With data-driven storytelling, the conclusion is a particularly important part of the story. While the beginning and middle parts of your story set the stage and generate interest, the wrap up is your opportunity to inspire and/or motivate your audience.

One Key Takeaway to Remember

That last point leads me to a critical piece of data-driven storytelling advice: Never leave your audience feeling defeated. In storytelling parlance, the conclusion is your opportunity to find the silver lining — the actions that can be taken to change or improve the outcome.

This isn’t to gloss over difficult decisions or issues that are revealed in the data. The goal is to present all of the relevant facts, paint a complete and vibrant picture that illustrates the data behind the facts, and finish with a clear plan for changing (or building on) the end of the story – the desired next steps.

Do that, and you’ll walk away with an engaged audience that’s eager to embrace the business intelligence that can transform their organizations.

For the complete series of Self-Service Power BI courses visit.

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