Storytelling with Data

“There is always a story in the data—you just have to find it.”

This simple advice from an old boss got me through last week, when I got a desperate call from a client I hadn’t worked with for awhile.  The problem: “We’re working on this report, but right now it reads like we’re just dropping a ton of numbers on the reader. We can’t make the data tell a story.”

Ah, the dreaded “data dump.” Since making data tell a story is one of my favorite things to do, I was happy to take this on even though the report was due in three days. As I waded through piles of data, I came up with some more advice of my own:

A questionnaire is not a report outline. The initial draft from my client was well-written and accurate, but boring.  They basically went through the questionnaire and listed the results of each question, in order: “X% of moms think ABC. X% of moms say XYZ.” And on to the next question, even though the two had little to do with each other. I’d rather treat the results like a pile of puzzle pieces and figure out how I can organize them so they tell a story.

Sometimes the story isn’t in the obvious responses. Sometimes the percentage of people who are likely to do something isn’t as surprising or interesting as the percentage of people who are unlikely to do something.  Or the percentage who “don’t know.” Or the contrast between two questions: “A majority of moms think they’re permissive with their children, but the same percentage believe that other moms are too strict.”

If you don’t know who’s going to read your story, you can’t be sure you’re telling the right one. The same dataset could tell several different stories. Maybe conflicting beliefs between two different groups (nurses and doctors? men and women?) is the story, or maybe it’s that people have low awareness of an issue but think they know more than they do. In this case, I knew that the client wanted to talk about changes over time, so I focused on the contrast between moms’ parenting approaches and their own recollections of childhood.

I ended up giving the client a report that was less of a data drop-off and more of a story, complete with some background, a conflict, and a resolution. They were delighted and even considered adding some “characters” in the form of supporting quotes from moms they had spoken to in qualitative research.  All in all, it was a story with a happy ending.

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Founder of Southpaw Insights