What is data storytelling?

Basha Coleman

Data storytelling is the art of turning raw data into a compelling narrative that informs business decisions. According to McKinsey & Company, companies that prioritize data-driven decision-making are 6% more profitable than those that don't, but how do you turn data into actionable insights to make those decisions? Here, I’ll show you exactly how to tell a story with your data.

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If you prefer to listen, check out our podcast interview with Grant Feller, award winning storyteller, journalist and Founder of Every Rung, who discusses the power of storytelling.

The benefits of storytelling with data

Data storytelling transcends data interpretation, offering a pathway to decision-making and team alignment towards common goals. By transforming data from numbers in a spreadsheet to a coherent narrative, stakeholders can quickly grasp complex situations, enabling swift decision-making—a cornerstone of strategic business initiatives.

Here’s three main benefits data storytelling provides:

1. The data transform from numbers in a spreadsheet to actionable insights

If you consider data in a spreadsheet as level one of data communication, data in a story is level ten. Consider the busy schedules of your stakeholders—they probably don’t have time to check a dashboard filled with data let alone decipher the information in a spreadsheet. Converting it into a story format, either written or visual, goes a long way.

Not only does the story make the information more accessible to a wider audience, it enables quick decision making which is the goal of strategic business initiatives.

2. A data-backed narrative provides context for complex situations

Imagine this: the advertising department in an agency needs to decide whether to bring on a new client in a new industry. Although the opportunity would be great for business, there’s a chance that the current team within the agency isn’t skilled to fulfill all of the account’s needs. How can the agency decide whether to take on the client?

One way to do this would be to look at the data that proves the client is a worthwhile opportunity by analyzing the ROI of taking them on. Then, they might compare that against the most successful campaigns they’ve done for clients.

But these two points of data may not overlap into a single decision for those who look at it. A story needs to be told through the data to explain the complexity of the situation so that stakeholders can reach a decision. A powerpoint slide, async video, or even a memo with charts and graphs can be great ways to tell the story of this data and reveal actionable insights.

3. Data storytelling fosters team goal alignment

Data storytelling fosters team goal alignment by providing context and clarity around organizational objectives. By weaving data into a narrative that resonates with team members, it helps align individual efforts with overarching goals, ensuring everyone understands their role in achieving collective success. When teams are presented with a compelling story backed by data, they gain a shared understanding of priorities and challenges, facilitating collaboration and cooperation towards common objectives. 

Moreover, data storytelling encourages transparency and accountability, as teams can track progress and performance metrics within the context of the broader narrative, promoting a unified vision and driving collective action towards shared goals.

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For more on this, check out our blog on how to make your findings more accessible to the business.

Types of data storytelling techniques

From interactive visualizations to compelling narratives, the data storytelling techniques below will boost a drab presentation to an engaging one that will resonate with your audience.

1. Narrative arc

The narrative arc technique involves structuring data presentations in a way that follows a traditional storytelling format, including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. By framing data within a narrative structure, storytellers can engage their audience, leading them through a journey that builds suspense, highlights key insights, and culminates in actionable conclusions.

2. Visual storytelling

Visual storytelling leverages the power of visual elements such as charts, graphs, infographics, and interactive data visualizations to convey complex information in a compelling way. By incorporating visually appealing graphics and illustrations, data storytellers can enhance audience comprehension, capture attention, and evoke emotional responses, making the data more engaging and memorable.

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For more on this, check out our podcast interview with William Lunderman, Instructor at the Parsons School of Design, who shares how to apply design thinking to create a hit in the market.

3. Character-driven stories

Character-driven stories use personas, case studies, or real-life examples to humanize data and connect with the audience on a personal level. By featuring relatable characters inspired by movies, TV shows, or maybe even your coworkers within the data narrative, you can contextualize insights, illustrate challenges and opportunities, and demonstrate the real-world impact of data-driven decisions, fostering empathy and understanding among stakeholders.

4. Data-driven conversations

Data-driven conversations involve inviting stakeholders to participate in interactive discussions to explore and interpret data together. By facilitating dialogues around data insights, data analysts can encourage active participation, solicit diverse perspectives, and co-create narratives that reflect the collective wisdom of the group.

5. Interactive storytelling

Interactive storytelling allows audiences to explore and interact with data narratives dynamically, enabling them to customize their experience, drill down into specific details, and uncover insights at their own pace. Leveraging interactive tools and technologies such as dashboards, data visualization software, and immersive storytelling platforms is key to promoting deeper understanding and engagement.

How to tell a story with data

Mastering data storytelling requires a systematic approach. Here's a step-by-step guide to harnessing the power of data storytelling:

Step 1: Understand your audience and their needs.

Identify key stakeholders and tailor your narrative to address their concerns and objectives.

Zappi Tip: Consider creating personas to better understand your audience's preferences and pain points.

Step 2: Choose the right data visualization tools.

Select tools that align with your storytelling goals and make complex data accessible and engaging.

Zappi Tip: Experiment with different visualization styles to find the most effective way to convey your message.

Step 3: Craft a compelling narrative.

Weave together data points into a coherent story that highlights insights and actionable recommendations.

Zappi Tip: Use storytelling frameworks like the hero's journey to captivate your audience and drive engagement.

Data storytelling examples

Use case #1: Marketing campaign optimization

Tools: Tableau, Google Analytics, Excel

Step 1: Analyze campaign performance metrics in Google Analytics to identify trends and areas for improvement.

Step 2: Visualize data using Tableau to uncover actionable insights and optimize marketing strategies.

Step 3: Generate reports in Excel to communicate findings and recommendations to stakeholders.

Use case #2: Sales forecasting

Tools: Salesforce, Python, Power BI

Step 1: Collect historical sales data from Salesforce and external sources for analysis.

Step 2: Use Python to create predictive models and forecast future sales trends.

Step 3: Visualize forecasted data in Power BI dashboards for easy interpretation by sales teams.

Unlock the power of data-backed storytelling

Data storytelling is the art of transforming raw data into actionable insights that drive business decisions. 

If you master the storytelling techniques I’ve shared in this post, you’ll be equipped to unlock the full potential of your data. Explore the provided examples and practice data storytelling to enhance your analytical skills and drive meaningful impact in your organization.

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