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.

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