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Telling a Good Data Story

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Customer StoryStories, being told them and telling them, has been part of who we are, literally from the day we were born.  We probably all have a favourite story teller from published authors to an uncle who tells the same tales every Christmas, but hooks you in none the less.


So think for a moment about your favourite story teller.  What makes her/him your favourite?  Perhaps as Frank Carson used to say, “it’s the way I tell it”.

Good stories engage, entertain, and inform their audience.  They take us on a journey and ideally inspire or motivate us to take action or change a behavior.

We have more information coming at us these days than ever before and so the skill in being a good story teller is becoming more and more valuable.


  1. Why do we tell stories?

In our personal interactions we tell stories for a range of reasons – to make friends, to build rapport, to share experiences, knowledge and so on.  While these are also important in business, telling stories in a business context will most likely involve some level of persuasion and influencing.

Be clear about why you are telling the story, particularly when it comes to data stories.  We are drowning in data and if you are not focused, you might bring more data into the story than is needed.

Tip: Set out the objectives and identify what data you are using very early on.


  1. What framework are you following?

At the very minimum, make sure your story have a beginning, middle and end.  Our brains are hard wired to receive information this way and so it will make the assimilation of the information much easier.

The beginning should focus on a brief explanation of why you conducted the analysis and what data you have used.  Let the audience know the problem you were trying to solve, or the issue you were exploring.

The middle is where you take them through the findings and the end is really all about the action you need them to take.

Tip: When it comes to the data, explain the source of the data, the time period it reflects and any oddities (outliers or data quality issues) you might have stripped out.  Anchor your findings by comparing one product line to another, your company to the competitors or your customers to the larger population.


  1. What emotions are you tapping into?

More and more research into decision making is pointing out the greater share emotions play over rationale when it comes to making up your mind.  If it’s a Data Privacy issue you might want to inspire a bit of fear in your audience to motivate them to take action, but hopefully it might be more positive emotions like pride and brand love you’re after.  Never underestimate envy, particularly when it comes to competitor analysis!

Tip: Think about how you are going to emotionally hook your audience in.  What do they care about? How can you use comparison statistics and social proof to influence their decision?


  1. What action do you want the audience to take?

Listening to a story for pure entertainment value is a fantastic way to spend your free time.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that much free time at work, so make sure the data story you are telling is purposeful.  You need to think about the ‘so what’ questions that will come, as in, ‘so what does that mean for our company/my department … so what do we need to do’

Tip: Make sure you’ve got strong recommendations at the end of the story.  These should be achievable, within the reach of the organisation.


  1. How visual is your story?

Generally, your audience won’t be interested in all of the data you analysed, less is definitely more here!  Keep it short and to the point and use visualisation to clearly communicate the findings.

Start simple with excel and powerpoint graphs, use images as metaphors for the point the data is trying to make.  Get inspiration from the web on how to present data with less numbers!

Tip: Only use the really essential, impactful data in the story.  All others can be held in the appendix or shared later.  You need to keep the audience with you to discuss the meaningfulness of the data rather than getting stuck into the numbers themselves.


Writing good data stories is a craft.  We’d recommend you store up a reference of data stories you’ve enjoyed as a source of inspiration when putting your story together.  Ask for feedback – check in with the audience after a presentation to see if they had enough or too much information, was it clear and easy to follow and what might they like to see next time.


Happy writing!  If you’d like to talk more about data storytelling, drop Tara ( a line, she loves to talk about stories!   


13th May, 2016 by Tara Grehan

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