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Data Storytelling: How to Connect Data to People

By its definition, “data” are individual facts, statistics or items of information. They’re cold and faceless and, on their own, do little to explain what they represent.

For instance, the census says what percentage of people in a given area fall within low-income brackets, but the numbers don’t explain why or describe that population’s daily realities.

For Megan Huss, Director of the Process and Performance Improvement Program at the Center for Leadership Development in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), storytelling does that. It bridges the gap between accumulating data and doing something about it.

“One of the key reasons that [storytelling] is so effective is that we’re actually able to share not just the what’s happening … but we’re able to convey more about the why,” Huss said. “And kind of unpacking and creating that story around what that actual data or that fact says.”

“The data in itself holds tremendous potential value, but that’s really the key here,” she continued. “Because until we create that bridge and make that linkage of how we’re utilizing that and how we can drive decisions and encourage action from that data, the data really — in and of itself — would just have potential value.”

Be Clear, Concise and Visual

Huss said that after collecting and analyzing data and using sound statistical and ethical techniques, the next question should be, “How can we maximize the value this data holds?” What organizational or societal change can we shoot for?

“Skilled data storytellers are really able to distill down to the most critical components, the insights that we want to share. So, not conveying all of it, not having background noise going on, but really having that concise story and message,” she said.

That means reducing jargon and unnecessary acronyms, and using simple and compelling visuals that tell a story with graphics. It means sharing the information in a concise way that paints the full picture.

And good data stories explain how the information plays a role in people’s lives.

“We have these black-and-white data facts,” Huss said, “but we get significant benefits by actually adding that personal experience, adding elements that get at individuals’ feelings and emotions.”

Know Your Audience

Tailor all data stories to their audiences, Huss said. Narratives must recognize people’s objectives and experiences. Is the audience technical or non-technical, leadership or entry- level? What role do audience members play in the larger story?

And think about their biases and preconceived notions. “Really have a solid understanding of where people are trying to go with the data, and then how we can best utilize that [knowledge] to tell the true story and the insights drawn from it,” Huss suggested.

Sometimes, it may be best to tell more than one narrative.

“There may be findings from a particular data set that would be best and most appropriately built into two, three data stories that can be targeted to the various audiences, depending on what their level of need is, what questions they’re asking of the data and what call to action might be most relevant to them,” explained Huss.

Think Art Meets Science

A good data narrative threads together key elements of the “data journey,” as Huss described it. It’s part scientific acumen and part artistic know-how. You must be creative enough to understand what will make two-dimensional data come to life.

Huss said she thinks “there’s an opportunity for individuals from any discipline and any industry to be involved in [data storytelling] because we do have that perfect combination of art and science.”

“Those of us who love data lose sight of the fact that it’s not intriguing to everyone,” she said. “But the reality is that if our data isn’t understood, it won’t be compelling.”

Becoming an information storyteller — linking art and science — doesn’t require a full pivot of your career field, in Huss’s mind.

“Rather, these are skills that all of us as a process improvement practitioner, as a [human resources] specialist, as a management analyst can add to our tool belt to be more effective in our current and future roles,” she said.

This article appears in “Your Data Literacy Guide to Improve Everyday Collaboration.” For more insights on making data do more, download the guide:

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