April 25, 2020 / Esther Choy

3 Principles of Data Storytelling

My favorite professor Karl Schmedders released a webinar during the pandemic lockdown. I was dying for a bit of intellectual stimulation after being cooped up inside for weeks. Karl came to the rescue! He wore his signature three-piece suit with a bow-tie, paired with his unmistakable mix of personal warmth, high energy, and a hint of sarcasm. My only hesitation was about the topic: his take on the influence of COVID-19 on the financial market.

I am no expert in finance. I don’t even follow the stock market closely. Would I be able to understand anything? And would it be especially hard to follow via video instead of an in-person class?

When data and complex information are involved, video conferencing presents hefty communication challenges. This is even more true when you’re presenting data during a Zoom meeting, rather than a carefully orchestrated presentation.

“Remote environments can be packed with distractions,” says Brent Dykes, author of Effective Data Storytelling, “from temptations to multitask to background interruptions. Because you’re physically separated from your audience, it can be harder to gauge whether your audience is paying attention, whether they’re following what you’re sharing, and how they’re reacting to your message.”

It’s also harder for audiences to engage in conversations about the data over video. “It is much harder to have freeform debate over video than in person,” writes Victoria Turk in Wired, “especially when more than two people are involved, as it’s more difficult to pick up on those social cues when someone wants to interject or has something to add.”

How can presenters help their virtual audiences grasp data more easily despite these obstacles? How do you do so in a way that gets your audience on board with your ideas and plans?

By turning data into stories.

“With so many extra challenges involved with video meetings, it becomes even more important to raise the bar for your data presentations,” says Dykes. “A well-designed data story can… streamline your communications by removing unnecessary detail and adding the needed structure to your insights.”

Here are three principles behind why it’s vital to focus on data storytelling, rather than simply presenting data.

1. Information is only powerful if your audience understands it. 

Don’t short-change your audience; they can understand a great deal of complex information, even if it is outside their field. They just need someone who can walk them through it in a way they can understand. Everyone loves the rewarding feeling of having understood a complex idea—and skilled presenters make that happen for them.

Consider the scene from The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg downloads profile pictures from one of the residential houses at Harvard. “First up is Kirkland,” Zuckerberg narrates, “they keep everything open and allow indexes in their Apache configuration so a little wget magic is all that’s necessary to download the entire Kirkland Facebook. Kid’s stuff.”

The average viewer may not understand what it means to “allow indexes in their Apache configuration.” Most people might not know whether “a little wget magic” will indeed be useful. But the visual background tells the story in this scene. We can see how easily Zuckerberg hacks in. We watch as photos fly into his files.

If this wasn’t a film and had to be narrated verbally instead of visually, we might need the story to spell out how he hacked in within seconds and made those photos his own, and then we would understand the computer terms.

In the case of Karl’s webinar, I was very skeptical initially of my ability to follow the content. Fortunately within minutes of his opening, he painted the whole picture of the current stock market performance with just three simple charts. The crash in March 2020 is on par with the two worst days in 1929. I get it! I want more!


2. You may be impressed by the data you’ve collected, but you have to show the audience why they should be.

A client of mine used to start presentations to their own clients with, “Your contract has a value of $30M, a 10% increase over last year. You had $15M in discounts…”  That didn’t intrigue and delight their audiences. They worked with us to revise their presentation so that it intrigues first, and then presents the data. Now, my client’s presentation  begins with a story of his company’s values, relates it back to the customer, and then—halfway through the meeting—he shows the data that proves his points. By then, the audience wants the data and knows what it means.

The audience is not impressed with a flood of data. They want to know what the data means, and why they should care.

3. The information must align with the questions your audience want to be answered. 

Too often the answers the data provide don’t match the questions the stakeholders have, says Kimberly Silk, data librarian for University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute.

“The challenge when using data to support evidence-based decision-making is that while we collect lots of data, and we have lots of answers, we are often guilty of not answering the question,” says Silk in the article “Acting on Big Data.”

Data storytelling comes to the rescue, helping us keep our audience and purpose in mind while delivering data in a way that will connect with our audience’s deepest cognitive needs.  (Read more about aligning your data with your audience’s needs.)

From Data to Data Storytelling

The big question my clients always have is, “How do I get from data to story?” Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you turn data into a gripping story.

1. Outside of the project I am communicating about with them, what are the most pressing challenges my audience currently faces? What keeps them up at night?

2. What do I most want them to remember?

Even the most engaged audience will not remember everything from your presentation. Ask yourself the following question: “After listening to my presentation, I hope my audience will remember the following three points, even if they cannot recall anything else I tell them…”

List up to three major points… keep each point to 10 or fewer words:

  1. _________________________

  2. _________________________

  3. _________________________

3. When it comes to the project itself, what is my audience most interested in? 

Start your story here…. even if it is not the main thing you want to talk about! “Give them what they want, then tell them what they need to hear.” Nothing bores listeners more quickly than feeling like their questions are never going to be answered.

4. How can I keep them curious about the data?

The curse of knowledge is real! Once you know something, it is very hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. You can break that curse by keeping a journal as you go along. Note what is surprising to you and what questions you want answered as you delve deeper into the research. Then use those to keep your listeners engaged. It can also be helpful to get an outside perspective from a friend, mentor, or leadership storytelling coach.

Most people make the mistake of starting their presentation with an executive summary, such as, “If we invest in this new vertical, we are estimating a revenue of $20 million over five years and it will take us six months to launch.” This reveals the whole story all at once. Thus, it shuts down their curiosity.

Instead, keep your audience guessing: “We would like to enter a new vertical that has an estimated revenue for us of $20 million over five years, but given our resources and the competitive landscape, is this worthwhile for our company at this time?” Once you’ve raised a question your audience wants answered, your presentation can make the case for change.

To capture attention, try enlivening your slide titles. While reviewing a contract with a client, you may have a slide titled “Opportunities.” Instead, try something like this: “You still have money left on the table.”

While they imply the same thing, the second one steals attention. You can follow the title with a subtitle that calls out the data point you would like to highlight.  For example, “Here are a few benefits you can use for the remaining 10% of your $2M contract value.” This gets the point as well as the data across quickly— even if the rest of the slide is filled with tables, charts, and graphs!

Once your story is crafted, don’t forget to attend to the practical side of virtual meetings. Brent Dykes recommends making sure your WiFi connection is strong to prevent video and audio issues.  “While you can’t control your audience’s remote environments,” he says, “you can remove or reduce the distractions on your end.” He suggests:

  • Disabling non-essential applications on your laptop;

  • Locking the door to the room you’re presenting from;

  • Finding a way to assess audience engagement.

He suggests two ways to do this: “pause more frequently to check that your audience is following the key points of your data story,” or “enlist a colleague to scan the audience windows and interject when there appear to be questions or concerns.”

When it comes to using stories to make complex topics easier to understand, do you have examples of how you do this in your field? Contact me. I’d love to celebrate your success, and I may share your story on social media or in an upcoming article!

If you want your audience to understand your data, we provide customized storytelling coaching and consulting services to help you do so. Give us a shout!

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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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