Plato famously quipped “those who tell stories rule society.” This statement is as true today as it was in ancient Greece. Narratives have always helped us to make sense of the complicated world. Instead of just listing facts, people were alternating them with explanations, context and interpretation to make sure the listeners can see the events in their mind’s eye exactly the way they happened.
In the contemporary world of business, the good old art of storytelling is far from forgotten: instead of speeches on the Senate floor, businesses rely on data visualizations to convey information and persuade audiences. By combining the storytelling with some of the new advancements in dashboard software, powerful and meaningful presentations can be made to move people and make decisions. In this blog post, we will first go over the more general data storytelling and what you can do with your data to deliver a great story to your audience. In a second part, we will focus more specifically on the dashboard storytelling, providing some tips’n’tricks to help you make your dashboard relevant, your story accessible to everyone and engage your audience. Finally, we will look at two storytelling dashboard examples in different industries: retail and healthcare.
The Basics: Data Storytelling 101
Big data requires big stories. Business people turn to data visualizations to show the voluminous content on just a few charts. However, the resulting business insights may remain hidden if they are not communicated by words. Without language, business people are unable to push their message through and make impact on the audience. Marketers, sales people and entrepreneurs in general are today’s storytellers. They are responsible for their data story; as such, they’re often the bridge between the data and the audience of decision-makers they want to encourage to take the desired action. Effective storytelling with data in business must be focused on tailoring the story to the audience and choosing the right data visualization type to complement the narrative. Let’s go over some tips on how to prepare the best story to accompany your data.
Start with data visualization
This may sound repetitive, but it is the basics when it comes to data storytelling: you must choose you visualization carefully. Indeed, different views answer different questions, so be careful when choosing how to visualize it. To help you in this initiative, you will need a data visualization tool. They are now ubiquitous and provide a wide array of options to choose from – line charts, bar charts, maps, scatter plots, spider webs, and many more, that are rightly recognized as a more comprehensive option than PowerPoint presentations or endless Excel files. These tools help both in exploring the data and in visualizing it, enabling your to communicate the insights in a persuasive way. However, we still need more than a computer algorithm – we need a human to present the data in a manner that will make it meaningful and valuable. Moreover, it doesn’t need to be a one common presenter or a teacher-like figure. According to a research carried out by the Stanford University, there are actually two types of storytelling: author versus reader-driven storytelling. An author-driven narrative is static and authoritative because it dictates the analysis process to the reader/listener. It’s like analyzing a chart printed in a newspaper. On the other hand, reader-driven storytelling, allows the audience to structure the analysis on their own – choose the data visualizations that they deem meaningful and interact with them on their own by drilling down to more details or choosing the metrics they want see visualized. Thus, they can reach out for insights that are crucial for them and make sense out of data independently.
Put your audience first
Storytelling with data should always begin with stating of the purpose. What is the main takeaway from your data story? It’s clear that your purpose will be to motivate the audience to take a certain action. Therefore, instead of thinking of your business goals, try to envisage what your listeners are looking for. Each member of your audience, be that a potential customer, future business partner or a stakeholder, has come to listen to your data storytelling to gain a profit for himself. In order to better meet his expectations and gain his trust (and money), put his goals first and let them determine the line of your story. Needless to say, before the presentation, try to learn as much as you can about your listeners. Put yourself in their shoes: who are they? What do they do on a daily basis? What are they needs, what value they can draw from your data for themselves? The more you will understand your audience, the more they will trust you and follow your idea.
Don’t fill up your data storytelling with empty words
Storytelling with data, rather than presenting data visualizations alone, brings the best results. However, there are certain enemies of your story that make it more complicating than enlightening and turn your efforts into waste of time. First of them are various technology buzzwords that are hackneyed and devoid of defined meaning. Such words don’t create a clear picture in your listeners’ heads and are useless as a storytelling aid. In addition to under-informing your audience, buzzwords are a sign of your lazy thinking and a herald that you don’t have anything unique and meaningful to say. Try to add clarity to your story by using more exact and descriptive alternatives that truly communicate your purpose.
Other trap is using your industry jargon to sound more professional. The problem here is that it may not be the jargon of your listeners’ industry, thus, they may not comprehend your narrative. Moreover, some jargon phrases have different meanings depending on the context they are used in – they mean something else in the business field, and something else in everyday life. They reduce clarity, and can also convey the opposite meaning of what you intended to communicate in your data storytelling.
In general, don’t make your story too long, focus on explaining the meaning of data rather than on the ornateness of your language and humor of your anecdotes. Avoid overusing buzzwords or industry jargon and try to figure out what insights your listeners want to draw from the data you show them.
How To Present A Dashboard
In a second part, we will go over a more specific type of data storytelling: the coined verb of “dashboarding”.
Business dashboards are now leading the way when it comes to visualizing business intelligence. Unlike its predecessors, state-of-the-art dashboard builders give presenters the ability to engage audiences with real-time data and offer a more dynamic approach to presenting data compared to the rigid, linear nature of Powerpoint. With the extra creative freedom dashboards offer, the art of storytelling is making a reemergence in the boardroom. The question now is: what is great dashboarding? Here are our top five tips on how to transform your presentation into a story and rule your own company through dashboard storytelling.
Set up your plan
Start at square one on how to present a dashboard: outline your presentation. Like all good stories, the plot should be clear, problems should be presented, and an outcome foreshadowed. You have to ask yourself the right questions when it comes to exploring the data to get insights, but you also have to ask yourself the right questions when it comes to presenting such data to a certain audience: which information do they need to know? Want to see? Make sure you have a concise storyboard when you present so you can take the audience along with you as you show off your data. Try to be purpose-driven so as to have the best dashboarding outcomes, even though you should of course not entangle yourself in a rigid format that is unchangeable.
Don’t be afraid to show some emotion
Stephen Few, a leading design consultant explains on his blog that “when we appeal to people’s emotions strictly to help them personally connect with information and care about it, and do so in a way that draws them into reasoned consideration of the information, not just feeling, we create a path to a brighter, saner future”. Emotions stick around much longer in a person’s psyche than facts and charts. Even the most analytical thinkers out there will be more likely to remember your presentation if you can weave elements of human life and emotion. How to present a dashboard with emotion? By adding some anecdotes, some personal life experiences that everyone can relate to, or some culturally shared moment and jokes.
However, do not rely just on emotions to make your point. Your conclusions and ideas need to be backed by data, science, facts; otherwise -and especially in business- you might not be taken seriously. You’d also miss an opportunity to help people learn to make better decisions by using reason, and only tap in a “lesser-evolved” part of humanity. Instead, emotionally appeal to your audience to drive home your point.
Make your story accessible to people outside your sector
Combining complicated jargon, millions of data points, advanced math concepts and making a story that people can understand is not easy task. Opt for simplicity and clear visualizations to increase the level of audience engagement. Your entire audience should be able to understand the points that you are driving home. Jeff Bladt, the director of Data Products & Analytics at DoSomething.org, offered a case study on accessibility through data. When commenting on how he goes from 350 million data points to organizational change, he shared: “By presenting the data visually, the entire staff was able to quickly grasp and contribute to the conversation. Everyone was able to see areas of high and low engagement. That led to a big insight: Someone outside the analytics team noticed that members in Texas border towns were much more engaged than members in Northwest coastal cities.” Making your presentation accessible to lay people opens up more opportunities for your findings to be put to good use.
Create an interactive dialogue
No one likes being told what to do. Instead of preaching to your audience, enable them be a part of the presentation through interactive dashboard features. By using real-time data, manipulating data points in front of the audience, and encouraging questions during the presentation, audiences will be more engaged as you empower them to explore the data on their own. At the same time, you also provide a deeper context. The interactivity is especially interesting in dashboarding when you have a broad target audience: it onboards newcomers easily while letting ‘experts’ dig deeper in the data for more insights.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches to storytelling with data. Create a dashboard storytelling plan that allows you to experiment and test different options and learn what will build the engagement among your listeners. As you try and fail by making them fall asleep or check their mails, you only learn from it and get the information on how to improve your dashboarding and storytelling with data techniques, presentation after presentation.
Storytelling Dashboard Examples
Now that we have gone over the theories on how to deal with data storytelling and how to present a dashboard, let’s illustrate our words with a couple of examples.
A retailer’s store dashboard
The retail industry is an interesting one as it has particularly been disrupted with the advent of online retailing. Collecting data analytics is extremely important for this sector as it can take an extremely good advantage out of analytics, because of its inherent data-driven nature.
This storytelling dashboard example is providing us with information related to customers’ behaviour and helps in identifying patterns in the data collected. The retail KPIs tracked here are focused on the sales: by division, by items, by city, and the out-of-stock items. It lets us know what are the current trends in customers’ purchasing habits, and lets us break down this data according to a city or a gender/age, for an enhanced analysis. We can also anticipate any stock-out, to avoid loosing money, and visualize the stock-out tendencies over time to spot any problem in the supply chain.
This is a typical storytelling dashboard that will in addition help tell more stories thanks to the marketing campaigns. Indeed, these analytics enable to adapt these campaigns per channel: we can see, by breaking down the Sales Volume by division, that women are the first point of revenue. Per city, New York adds up to almost 30% of the sales. All this information is important for customer retention, as it is less expensive to retain the ones we already have than acquiring new clients.
A hospital’s management dashboard
This second storytelling dashboard example delivers the tale of a hospital. That sounds probably fancier than it is, but the importance is not lesser. All the more when it comes to public healthcare, a sector very new to data collection and analytics but that has a lot to win from it in many ways.
For a hospital, having a centralized dashboard is a great ally in the everyday management of the facility. The one we have here gives us the big picture of a complex establishment, tracking several healthcare KPIs. From the total admissions to the total patients treated, the average waiting time in ER or broken down per division, the story told by this data is essential. The top management of this facility have a holistic view to run the operations more easily and efficiently, and can try to implement diverse measures if they see abnormal figures. For instance, an average waiting time for a certain division that is way higher than the others can shed light on some problems this division might be facing: lack of staff training, lack of equipment, understaffed unit, etc.
All this is highly important for the patient’s satisfaction as well as for the safety and wellness of the hospital staff, that deals with life and death everday.
Start Your Dashboard Storytelling Now
One of the major advantages of working with dashboards is the improvement they have made in data visualization. Don’t let this feature go to waste with your presentation. Put an emphasis on making visuals clear and appealing to get the most from your dashboarding. With the abundance ways to visually present data, make sure you choose the one that works best with for a great storytelling with data. For more tips, you can check out how to create reports people love to read but also find inspiration on how to create stunning dashboard with ease.
Transform your presentations from static, lifeless work products into compelling presentations by weaving an interesting and interactive plot line into your presentation. Start now with datapine’s free 14-day trial!