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3 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Telling Stories With Data

Data Communication

Jaime D’Agord



Data can be a powerful ally when you need to deliver a persuasive message to an audience. From offering compelling evidence in support of an idea to clearly illustrating trends that otherwise may have gone unnoticed, data storytelling bridges the gap between the data your organization generates and the insights you need to stay competitive.

And yet, too often, communications teams fall short when it comes to designing visuals to demonstrate conclusions from your data. You spend hours digging into your data to uncover a critical detail in your supply chain operation or how financial services are delivered. But instead of demonstrating the value of your findings, your visualizations look drab or confusing when they should be inspiring action.

Sometimes referred to as data insight communication, your efforts ultimately come down to telling a story—and telling it well. Though businesses have more communication tools at their disposal than ever, business intelligence software alone can’t make your message meaningful. By following these tips, you can ensure your data storytelling efforts deliver a happy ending.

Tip 1: Effective Data Insights Require Understanding Your Audience

One of the most exciting aspects of data analytics is the breadth of its reach. After your firm undertakes a digital transformation, it opens the door to gaining a greater understanding of how your business functions.

Effective reporting allows you to illuminate performance across business areas and find areas for improvement. But before you can create an influential illustration of those details, you need to know your audience.

Tailoring Data Visualizations to Your Audience Comes Down to Numbers

When designing data visualizations, you have to account for varying levels of experience with the topic. This can be especially challenging when you’re addressing a large crowd, such as a conference.

Half of your audience may be comprised of managers and experts in your field, while the other could be students or novices. How do you tailor your message to accommodate varying skill levels?

Ideally, you could break your audience into smaller groups and adjust your presentation accordingly. But that strategy isn’t always possible. Instead, you should tailor your presentation to the audience you most want to influence. You should expect some questions at the end, but your message will have reached its intended target.

Build User Stories to Inform Data Visualizations

In any business intelligence development, user stories are brief requirements that outline a specific need. The same approach will help you build more empathy with your audience by outlining their needs. The following questions about your audience will allow you to design a visualization that resonates:

  • What does my audience care about?
  • What motivates my audience?
  • How familiar is the audience with the topics my presentation will cover?

You can capture your audience’s interest with visualizations and data dashboards that focus on a familiar subject they care about and keeps their goals at the forefront. But gaining your audience’s attention is only the first part of the battle.

Tip 2: Your Data Visualizations Can’t Speak for Themselves

Advanced analytics platforms offer an assortment of possibilities to create reports and custom dashboards. However, when you need to ensure your message is communicated effectively, an off-the-shelf experience isn’t enough.

Too many analysts will rely on a visualization platform’s default settings to make important design decisions. When you’re delivering an important message to your organization’s leadership, you can’t afford to rely on design decisions that don’t take your specific needs into account. Consider the graphic below:

Charting production across multiple facilities, the visualization presents all of the data accurately. But the viewer gains no further cues about what part of this information is most important. Is the low output of Facility C most important? Or should we focus on the similar quantity generated by Facility E and D?

In the following chart, Express X is clearly illustrated as important information with its standout color. Plus, the heading further indicates the takeaway from the visualization. Instead of functioning as an illustration of data, the updated image becomes message-driven by underscoring what’s most important.

Data visualization specialists combine hard data skills with design expertise, which allows both disciplines to come together in charts and dashboards in beautiful ways. If you need further guidance in assembling a compelling visualization, you should consult books dedicated to visual communication or any design specialist in your organization.

Tip 3: Get to the Point With Your Data Visualization

From assembling a visually pleasing experience to ensuring its message is clear, you need to look beyond numbers to create an effective presentation. Like any other narrative, your data should tell an engaging story for your audience.

Any story follows a natural arc, and within the arc of your data story you also need to build a level of excitement or fear. For example, imagine you were delivering a data presentation outlining sales results. At the beginning, maybe your firm was doing poorly as the whole industry adapted to the pandemic, so your visualizations can set the stage for your viewers.

Then, after a new initiative, your numbers made a comeback. Or, they continued to fall before ultimately making a recovery this quarter. Whatever results you’re communicating, your full presentation needs to have a beginning, middle, and ending. Each step should work toward building excitement or fear in your audience. Then, once you reach the happily ever after, your conclusion will be much more impactful.

With so much information at your disposal to tell the story of your business, it’s up to you to make this journey engaging. And, at the end of that journey, you need to deliver a clear and compelling point.

Data analysts are always interested in highlighting the data, but sometimes they miss the story that will help their audience connect with their conclusions. Complex charts and graphs can be compelling, but their impact will be lost without the appropriate context.

To tell the story of your business, you need to pull out the most important points of the journey rather than solely focusing on the numbers. Then, data becomes the powerful tool you need to support your message.