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How do I express a data driven story?

Could your data be more engaging? Find out how to relate data to your colleagues in a more compelling way with visual storytelling.

In my last blog post I spoke about how to find your data driven story and offered a few points of guidance and inspiration from some learned sources. I’d now like to help you with how to best express your data driven story.

Inspiration for this post came from several conversations, both here at db HQ and also with clients, where a common theme occurred;  ‘We’re struggling to get people to engage with our data and insights. We have to change something.’

Enagage your audience.

My simple solution is to drop the spreadsheet, and get succinct and creative instead. Start to focus on simplicity and visual appeal.

Spotify have recently launched their own storytelling blog, Spotify Insights. They are doing some good work in this area at the moment, in terms of both telling and illustrating their stories. With access to an amazing amount of data on the listening habits of music lovers globally they’ve done some great work in creating appealing insights – Which country loves what genres? Which music cities are the most influential globally? Which unis listen to what bands? etc. Spotify demonstrate that, unless you can turn it into stories and content that plays by the rules of all compelling content, big data is nothing.

I never write a script. I simply research a topic until I feel that I can explain it off-the-cuff to ‘a motivated 7-year-old’.  Salman Khan

Khan is founder of the online learning portal www.khanacademy.com and holder of multiple degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard who uses this very simple benchmark for the online teaching videos that he creates.

I know it sounds like a throw-away line, but try to focus your energies on distilling your story down to its most simple and succinct narrative form. Then it will not only be simple enough for your senior management team to understand, but it will also be a great starting point for creating visual appeal.

Create a visual story.

So how do you add those tasty ingredients of visually appealing graphics and illustrations to your beautifully succinct stories? The good news is that you don’t need to be a full-scale graphic designer or even a PowerPoint/Keynote/Prezi whiz. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re lucky enough to have access to design talent then use it, but I often resort to a pencil case full of felt tips and a decent sketchpad. We live in an age where everything is designed and finessed through software, a hand drawn or illustrated story can deliver a high level of engagement because a) we rarely see one these days and b) it’s somehow human and a little quirky (and we like that).

Infographics are far and away the ultimate goal here – don’t forget you can create hand drawn ones too. Here are a few favourites of mine:

 A Quick Perspective on Death

How to be a Superhero

‘11 Essential Ingredients Every Blog Post Needs’ – this one is a double whammy,  it’s a great Infographic and a great subject matter. Even though you may not be writing a blog post the pointers are a great inspiration for helping you create a compelling story.

13 reasons why your brain craves infographics – last but not least, this is an amazing feat of design, plus more evidence as to why infographics are the king of data visualisation and why our brains love them so!

Now, close your eyes for a second and imagine the kudos you’ll get in the next management meeting when you dispense with the spreadsheet and throw up an infographic, or a sequence of real life, audience relevant images, perhaps with a few quirky little hand drawn annotations and then you nail it with a beautifully narrated story. You may see light bulbs go on that you thought were dead and gone!

At db we’re constantly challenging ourselves to communicate complex data and themes in simple and compelling ways. If you need help just ask.

Next time I’ll be addressing a third critical point: ‘How can I deliver these nuggets of insight in a manner that means they are likely to be consumed and understood?’

The content and advice contained in this post may be out of date. Last updated on November 7, 2014.

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