No, you’re not a data storyteller yet

The designer Stefan Sagmeister has a message for those who would presume to call themselves a “storyteller” when they’re not really: “No, fuckhead, you’re not a storyteller.” I agree, except for one word: yet. Many could become one.

Some of us in the data industry can identify. We’ve shouted something like this at our monitors as we’ve read about supposed “big data.” No, fuckhead, it’s just data! Now comes data storytelling, and we find ourselves shouting again.

Another annoyance is the idea that stories occur only in certain media. Sagmeister makes that mistake. “People who actually tell stories,” he says, “meaning people who write novels and make feature films…”

No, Sag, a story is just a structure. It has a few essentials that many subjects can satisfy. A data story — dismissed by some as vigorously as Sagmeister dismisses the roller-coaster designer — is a good and useful method for portraying analysis, involving non-analysts, and making conclusions stick.

Data storytelling is not an easy form to master — and there I agree with Sagmeister. “I’ve seen a number of films,” he says, “so I must be able to do one.”

Of course this is the most stupidest thought ever. It’s like, ‘Oh, I watched the philharmonic. That’s why I’m a virtuoso violin player.’ You know, well, I’m not, even though I’ve watched a lot of philharmonic concerts.

I’ve seen a lot of things called “data stories,” that aren’t stories at all. Many have nice visualizations, and many are well annotated, and some have a useful narrative. The author loves data. But most are not stories.

To paraphrase Sagmeister, data storytelling — still a hopeful updraft for the data industry — has taken on “the mantle of bullshit.”

Beware: Not everyone’s a storyteller who claims to be one.

See the video here.


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