Unlocking the story in data - why and how?

We all know data is everywhere, and given this, storytelling is becoming ever more important, and was a feature at the 2015 week long online insight festival hosted by E-Tabs and Keen as Mustard ‘Viz Fest’. One particular presentation of Unlocking the story in data by Caroline Florence I viewed tries to help explain what we mean, how we go about it, and why it is important – and now I’ll try distil that into a blog post…easy, right?

This best place to start is why we even need to tell a story. In the age of ‘big data’, we are drowning in information, yet our cognitive abilities haven’t developed at the same pace – the average short term memory can hold ‘Seven, plus or minus two’ pieces of information – take a look at the last chart, or section of a presentation, or even full presentation you produced for a client – how many pieces of information are you expecting people to take in? (don’t worry, many of us are guilty)

Unfortunately, storytelling isn’t just as simple as changing our existing presentations to include less information and more pictures, instead it requires us to change in how we shape our analysis. The way we are trained to conduct our analysis is through an inductive method, where the evidence (our data) is the star. For effective storytelling, the answer instead becomes the star and focal point of everything, forming a base for a more deductive method of analysis.

In order to do this, we first need to identify what is actually needed from the research – what is the reason behind it, why hasn’t it been achieved by the client to date and what is the key question we are trying to answer (this won’t always be addressed by the brief, so we need to challenge clients to get at the real crux of the issue). Once we know this, we can create some hypotheses that will form the base of our story – only now can we actually start the analysis.

The next step is to address this hypothesis – plug any information gaps and validate (or disprove) it – in an ideal world we prove the hypothesis through analysis and have the basis of a great story. BUT, this won’t always happen – creating hypotheses isn’t about making it up and seeing if we can fashion a story, but more about staking the ground. If evidence disproves our hypothesis or leads us to some contradictory information, then adapt the story!

Once we get to this stage and have a story in place, the next (one of the most important) parts is understanding how to make it ‘land’ with clients – there is not much point going through the process above if you don’t engage and connect with the audience and the story falls on deaf ears or isn’t used. We need to understand what appeals to them and what is in it for them to listen to you – this is how the connection through the story can be made

In summary, information is everywhere. What we instead need to do is turn that information into something useful and valuable for our clients to use…and who doesn’t like a nice story?