Lending a hand to would-be storytellers

Advocating data storytelling is easy. But actually making a data story out of data is something else. As much as storytelling could help to deliver meaning, says one consultant who works up close to the action, many data analysts just don’t even know where to start.

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“If no one teaches you how to tell a story, how do you do it?”says DecisionViz president Lee Feinberg. How do you expect them to tell a story in words or visualizations? “Face it, most of them aren’t even good at writing or English.” What might be hard even for natural storytellers is making a set of reports into something meaningful.

In one project, an advertising agency with mounds of data had to convince a client that spending money with them was worthwhile, and to make recommendations on expenditures. The agency wanted to show media buy did well or did badly. What went up or went down? What’s it mean? Why did it happen? They know they need to do it, but they just don’t know how. He helps them through it.

“In their gut, they knew that what they should be doing was not reporting,” he says. But if they issue reports without having thought through to the final message, they actually spend more time in the end after reports are sent back and have to be done over.

He offers analysts a structure and a methodology. He shows them how to break findings into pieces.

Do organizations need roving storytellers? I imagined a thin old guy with long, graying hair and a wizened face wandering among the cubicles and speaking up at crucial meetings. Would such a specialist help? Feinberg, perhaps humoring me, said it might.

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