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Data Story — How to build standout stories with data.

February 28, 2023
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6 min read
Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash
“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
— Brene Brown

G.O.A.T. is quite a claim.

Debates rage over Messi or Pelé, Schumacher or Hamilton, Williams or Graf. We’re animated by our sporting heroes. A select, slightly nerdier few are equally animated at the intersection of data and stories.

Imagine the scene; an establishment populated by passionate data fans and storytelling nerds, each arguing their corner for the greatest “data story” ever told.

Which data story wins?

An early contender.

The clever OG answer: DNA. The twisted ribbon of sugars and phosphates that encodes life. Packed with data and information? Check. Does it tell a story? Check. Our genetic code not only informs our story but how we interpret all other stories. 

Seems like a no-brainer.

But: disqualified. That clever answer of DNA isn’t something we can learn from and readily apply to business.

Sorry, my competition, my rules.

It’s a data story, not a story about data.

Fan favorites like Moneyball must be weeded out. 

So too, The Big Short (investors use data to bet against the US mortgage market), The Imitation Game (Alan Turing and the boffins at Bletchley Park build data crunching machines to crack Nazi codes), and The Joy Luck Club (women play mahjong and share life stories, with the use of data to tally wins and losses.)

All great stories where data is the McGuffin that moves each respective plot along. 

But the category is not stories about data. The category is data stories.

Like any G.O.A.T. argument, the winner depends on definition.

Before settling this, the rules of the game must be defined.

What determines the G.O.A.T. in sports? The number of Major Championships? The ability to transcend the sport? The selection of “greatest” depends on how you define greatness. 

(BTW, sports G.O.A.T, IMO—Jahangir Khan.)

We have to define a “great” data story.

Clear and Concise.

To tell a great story with data means the audience has to “get” it. 

Like any story, the structure has to aid engagement and understanding. You want attention. The story has to cut through, it has to be crisp. 

Crisp is at the core of Axios’ business model. The news organization, founded in 2016 by former Politico journalists, practices “smart brevity.” It’s a way of storytelling that uses subheads like “why it matters,” “the backstory,” and “yes, but” followed by a bulleted list detailing the news. 

A modern journalistic style is built on an AI-powered toolset, which condenses and scores prose. 

The aim: to cut through the noise.

Relevant data.

There is always more to the story, and there is always more data. 

The trick is in selecting what’s essential. This is the editorial decision to “goldilocks” the data and pick not too much nor too little, but just the right amount.

Relevant data is a tricky one. It’s audience dependent, and for most business audiences, it’s not just a matter of selecting the correct data but ordering and emphasizing parts of the data. The Economist’s Graphic Detail does a great job of taking big data sets and exposing just enough interesting nuggets to tell the story.

Visualization.

Visualization often gets a nod in great data stories. 

Allowing people to “see” the data reduces complexity and makes your story engaging and understandable.

Here, you might look at the classics. One popularized by Edward Tufte is Joseph Minard's map of Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812. Or John Snow’s London maps studying the spread of Cholera. The New York Times’s work in COVID-19 data visualization is a modern-day example of visualization in action.

A clear point.

The story has a point. The data punches that point home. 

It’s the insight, the ‘aha,’ or the moral of the story. Think Aesop’s fables: the lesson pulls the story along. 

This is true of Kevin Hartman’s nomination. The insight behind Amazon's inception as a bookstore rather than a pet store or furniture store. As an investment banker, Jeff Bezos learned that books were highly correlated to high-net-worth individuals. This gave him a starting point. Which is why Amazon began its journey as a bookseller before becoming the everything store it is today.

Emotive.

To check the box of story, a data story has to tug on the heart and head. We should feel—awe, surprise, inspiration, or curiosity—an emotion that drags on our attention and sears the data into memory.

Alberto Cairo’s G.O.A.T nomination is certainly that. Ida B. Wells's investigative journalism documented the atrocity of lynching through her articles and pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases, and The Red Record, in the 1890s.

Sticky.

A data story is pointless if it doesn’t stick. Great ones occupy memory. Like Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak, there is something vivid—and usually visual and repeatable—in the story that sticks like a burr in your brain.

This is the anti-chartjunk argument. While it’s good to remove tick marks, unnecessary lines, and irrelevant detail, a strong visual metaphor or cue can make your story memorable. 

Think of USA Today’s classic visual explainers or this graphic of incarceration rates from the Prison Policy Initiative.

The greatest data story ever told?

My entry is a short one.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the Indian space program, saying they had put a mission to Mars for less than it cost to make the movie Gravity. 14 words. One line in a speech. 

Can it be the greatest data story ever told?

To date, that story has been picked up in over 10,000 news articles. It has been the subject of reporting at CNN, the BBC, Reuters, and in newspapers all over the world.

A story in one sentence.

Let’s check our checklist. 

Is it clear and concise? 

Let me repeat. The story is one sentence. You don’t even have to remember the numbers.

Does it have relevant data?

Two lonely data points and the comparison between them drive the story. We don’t know even know the actual figures. This is minimal storytelling at its best. It relies on our ability to fill in the blanks and self-complete the story, even when all the detail isn’t there. The numbers, for the purpose of this story, don’t matter. It’s the comparison that does.

In case you are curious—the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster, $100 million, and the cost of the Mangalyaan mission, $76 million. 

Is it visual?

Yes.

Modi’s statement fills the mind's eye, drafting off Gravity’s reported marketing budget of $80 million. No need for more visualization when people can easily picture the courage of Clooney and the bravery of Bullock in space. It’s close enough.

Does it have a point? 

That is the beauty of this story. It is so on point. It’s what Modi later attributed to “frugal engineering” and the “power of imagination.” For an economic power like India, it’s on brand—technologically advanced and cost-effective.

Dig deeper into the numbers and make a comparison, and you will see other countries’ efforts. The U.S. Maven satellite cost $671 million. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express, $386 million; the Japanese Nozomi, $189 million and the Russian Fobos-Grunt, $117 million.

Is it emotive? 

Are you not floored that it can cost less to go into space in real life than it does to make a movie about it? It’s a surprising statistic, and it’s the crazy, lateral comparison that makes it stick.

Is it sticky?

You be the judge.

A version of this story has stuck in my head for eight years.

...........

Thanks to the folks that crowdsourced ideas to the data story playoff bracket.

Anthony Lombardo, Michael Gooch-Breault, Sheila Johnson, Alberto Cairo, Nolan Haims, Stewart Wolfe, Daniel Harrison, Bob Scavilla, Stephanie Evergreen, Kevin Hartman, Ray Vella, Ash Kanagat.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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