Data storytelling is the art of transforming statistical information into a narrative to provide interesting and valuable insights. By taking a series of numbers and presenting it in a visual format, you will be able to get your communication across to your target audience more effectively.
Let’s illustrate this argument through a simple example through some data visuals created for a client, Trax Retail. The following paragraph explains the loss in retail shelf space for a consumer product company.
“From the 23 stores tracked, our analytics showed that Store 9, 14 and 21 had the biggest loss in shelf space. Store 9 lost almost 350 facings and Store 14 lost 250 facings. The company was able to identify these compliance gaps and take corrective action.”
Now let’s see the same information presented in a chart.
Instead of a wordy paragraph, this chart instantly lets you see the stores with the most number of shelf space loss. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Having produced a range of data storytelling solutions for our clients, here are some tips on how to get it just right:
1. Think about the target audience and how they process data
Is your target audience seasoned data professionals capable of digesting complex graphs and charts? Or is it a group of people looking for simple takeaways presented simply? Is your audience a generalist, an expert or a novice?
Getting your audience right will help minimise a concept called cognitive load. If digesting the information presented in the visual seems like too much work, your audience may disengage and not take the desired action. Bar charts are often considered the most effective way to present information; they are elegant, straightforward and easily understood.
2. Use the right format to present your data
Give some thought to your content objectives. Are you looking to impart quick insights? If that’s your goal, a simple bar graph might be your best bet. Are you interested in showing a trend? Go for a line graph.
But before you even start deciding between graphs, ask the question: should I even be using a graph at all? Every data set does not need a graph to communicate the key message. Have a look at the following example for Brazil’s manufacturing as a percentage of GDP.
Now, the above line graph works well if you want to show the trend between the year 2000 to 2011. But if your intent is to simply communicate that manufacturing as a percentage of GDP fell from a high of 19.2% in 2004 to 14.6% in 2011, then you could make an even bigger impact by simply presenting the data as a single number. Sometimes this is all you need to get the message understood.
3. Don’t forget to tell a story. Simply.
The data in front of you is simply a means to an end. And that end is a compelling story or a point. When working with data sets, it is easy to get lost in the data and be tempted to include multiple analyses. The result? You may end up confusing your target audience. It is very important that you don’t lose focus while crafting your data story.
An effective way to do this is to ask yourself two simple questions that will make sure you address the ‘So What?’ element.
- What would I like my audience to know after viewing this data story?
- What action would I like my audience to take?
Once you have answered these questions, then craft your message around that specific element. And remember: you don’t need to cram every bit of information in your data. You might end up with a convoluted mess! A better approach might be to break your complex data sets into multiple content pieces. For example: a regional study or survey could be broken down into a multi-format series of snackable content pieces, such as branded animated GIFs, infographics or even short videos.
4. Pay attention to the detail and avoid common pitfalls
You don’t need to be a statistician capable of complex formulas on Excel to watch out for some of these common pitfalls. For one, when using percentages it all needs to add up to a 100! It’s an old example, but check out Fox News’ visual here where this basic mistake was made. It goes without saying that it’s critical to check the math and the accuracy of the data. To do that, employ an editor and a subeditor to fact check your content before it goes live!
Another common mistake is not paying close attention to scale. If you are comparing two numbers such as 70 million and 73 million in a bar graph, then one bar cannot be much shorter than the other. The columns have to be proportionate. That’s a misrepresentation of the data and will end up confusing the audience.
Another aspect to pay close attention to labelling the chart correctly. The following elements are a must in every data visual: title, subtitle axes, labels, captions and legends
5. Data storytelling is not just about graphs and columns
Communicating the key insights of a data set through snackable content is an immediately obvious choice. But content marketers should always look for the option to go deeper and tell even better stories — to create content that is anchored by data but goes deeper and further to really bring the stats to life. Let’s just make up an example: say, “survey findings reveal one in five shoppers likes to go to the supermarket in their pyjamas wearing a bowl of bananas on their head”.
It’s an interesting statistic (and wouldn’t it be fun if it was true!). It’s a no-brainer that this stat would make an impactful static GIF for your social channels. But why stop there? There are so many more content marketing opportunities. As an editor, I want to sniff out the real news story. I want to find these banana people and ask why, why, why? And then I want to tell that story — in an equally compelling way.
So my first suggestion is to track down and interview one of those shoppers. There’s a Q&A article. And of course it needs a photo. There’s original photography. But why stop at an article? Why not film the interview? There’s a video. What about interviewing multiple subjects? There’s a series of articles or videos (all featuring people shopping with bananas on their heads. Amazing!). Then on top of all that, we have the option to repurpose all that content into multiple formats: animated GIFs, social assets, cut-down videos, etc.
So from just one simple data point, we’ve created a rich repository of content. Pretend that one data point is merely one statistic on page one of a 78-page study that is packed to the brim with other equally interesting stats, and well, just let your imagination run wild with all the incredible opportunities on offer to create a library of truly powerful content.
Want us to bring your data storytelling to life, reach out to us at IMMedia for a proposal