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Month: August 2015

Tableau’s storytelling, conversation, and journalism

I imagine the Tableau marketers sitting down over the coming year’s menu of trends. “What, storytelling again?” one says as if dreading the taste of dim sum for the hundredth time.

Storytelling was a staple there at the trendy headquarters. The research department had not too long ago lured Robert Kosara away from an academic career. First thing, he and Jock Mackinlay published a whitepaper on the future of storytelling.

But no marketing stays fresh forever. Even before business people finish chewing on the last trend, new ones come along with the alacrity of T-shirt slogans. Fortunately, there were choices on the menu that would give new zing to “storytelling” — not with one new trend but with two.

“Ooh,” says another marketing exec pointing to the menu, “this looks good.”

Conversation is to trendy BI marketers what crickets and plant waters are to foodies. It’s also one of the tastiest components of storytelling. Throw a chart on the screen, and you want people to say something, ask you something, object, stand up and threaten to walk out if you don’t explain your data selection. This makes all the difference in meaning and effect.

Then comes the second trend. It’s salty, unpredictable, and challenging. It’s an old recipe made new: It’s journalism. Forget storytelling and its funny aftertaste. Journalism is the word for what data has always needed to reach the masses — yes, they exist — who in their hearts don’t give a god damn about data. All they want to know is what it means.

Of course, when Tableau says journalism they mean work by those who call themselves journalists. What business needs, though, are people who practice journalism no matter what they call it. I wish more data analysts would just take off the data hat and put on the journalist’s hat. Give the story — in journalism, every piece is called a “story,” with or without classic story structure — and present data only as they would other facts.

“Mmm,” that’s tasty,” the talented data analysts will say. “Let’s try that.” And the whole business world will thank them.

Conversation: data’s roots

Is time spent at a TDWI conference worthwhile? How would a prospective exhibitor or attendee judge beforehand? Perhaps the data would dictate — if the data could really tell the whole story.

At the recent TDWI conference in Boston, I counted a mere 18 booths in the exhibit hall. Most of the big names had stayed away, including Tableau, Qlik, and MicroStrategy. Only IBM planted itself there on the Hynes Convention Center’s big floor.

Even with much of the cavernous hall draped off, the stage designers still had a large space to fill — done with what seemed like overly abundant banquet tables. But what a surprise: The tables seemed reasonably full at the height of lunch — showing at a glance unexpected, healthy growth in attendance from last year. It was even better than the previous conference, in Chicago.

But that data was hardly all there was to it. No complex human event can be summed up so neatly, no matter what the “data driven” people insist. I asked around, starting with Dave Wells. He’s a former TDWI education director and still a guy who knows what’s going on around the organization.

Last fall, he returned to TDWI to help revive the moribund education program. He’s in the thick of the big story that has so far included an energetic new leader, sharpened marketing, new experiments with new course formats, and a return to four annual conferences instead of the disastrous five. He and I also co-teach a class in data storytelling, a welcome broadening of the agenda for the data-warehouse weary among us.

“Attendance precedes exhibitors,” said Dave. He means that the 18-booth data point doesn’t exist alone. It is just one point on a trend line, which could be flat, declining, or rising. Dave suggests that it’s a rising line, and because I think he’s a smart guy and worthy of trust, I try on that story.

I also listened to other, darker stories. One faculty member, also a smart guy, worried about rumors of a new friendliness with vendors. He calls it “whorishness.” Will the old firewall break down to allow too much compromise for education and media? Just how friendly will TDWI be, and what exactly is the plan? The imaginary trend line suggested by Dave seems to level off slightly with those questions.

The data devotees among us would at this point object to my approach. How can you compare rumors to data? But what makes them assume that data has integrity while stories, even unverified, do not? When will the data devotees hatch from that cocoon?

Information does not derive from data. Conversation and stories — in actual conversation or just anticipated — always precede and color data.

What does Boston portend for coming events in San Diego, Orlando, or Las Vegas? Obviously, TDWI’s revival has only begun, and while the new leader’s stride inspires us to see a rising trend line, he still has some thinking ahead. Overall, though, the buzz is good, and the trend line looks promising. What’s more, the catering is always better at the next event, in San Diego.