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Data storytelling: The secret to nailing your next presentation

by | Nov 16, 2022

By Juliana Spadaro, Marketing Analyst, Response Labs

Understanding and communicating data is an increasingly valuable skill. In business and marketing, data is critical in making sound strategic decisions. Of course, data alone doesn’t always lead to a decision. Let alone a strategic one. Data must first be compiled, organized, validated, and analyzed, and then presented in a format that people can understand. The natural inclination is to showcase your wonderful data in the form of charts, graphs, spreadsheets, dashboards, and other visualizations. But what story does your data tell? More importantly, how well do you tell the data’s story?

We’ve all sat in one too many presentations (even if it was only one) packed with data, but not much meaning. Perhaps you’ve given this kind of presentation. No shame here. Even the best marketing analysts and strategists can succumb to “analysis paralysis” and lose sight of what the data means to the audience. We’ll help you avoid this by looking at a powerful skill—data storytelling—that can make your presentations more effective.

What is data storytelling?

Data storytelling combines data, visuals, and narrative with the goal of engaging, inspiring or compelling an audience. Stories can help contextualize the results of data analysis and bring your visualizations to life. This unique fusion of presentation elements enables you to explain your findings in a meaningful way and helps your audience can connect the dots, figuratively and literally.

Data only tells you what’s happening, not why. As the presenter, you’re likely the subject matter expert; your job is to provide insights and actionable data intelligence. You bring value when you communicate in ways that your audience can relate to and understand the data. Businesses are looking for those a-ha moments that data storytelling has the unique ability to illuminate. That’s the power of data storytelling.

Why does storytelling matter?

Storytelling can make data more interesting, persuasive, and memorable. Thanks to the evolution of human communication, we’re conditioned to pay attention to stories and remember them. After all, stories have been the greatest conduit of information since the dawn of humanity. But the narrative form is more than just the transfer of information. Stories can offer insights into complex topics by linking personal experiences to broader themes.

As listeners, we use multiple parts of our brain to process story information including those responsible for language comprehension, emotional response, and empathy. The more our brains are engaged, the more likely the experience of hearing a story will be committed to long-term memory.

When you prepare to present data, consider how you can engage multiple parts of your audience’s brains. By using storytelling, you can elicit an emotional response and connect on a neural level. That matters in a world where there’s so much information and noise. People are more likely to trust what you say when their hearts and minds are tuned in.

Pro Tip: Next time you give a presentation with lots of data, look out for facial cues and warning signs that your audience is lost. Are people nodding in agreement? Or, are there furrowed brows? Are their eyes glazed? If you’re not seeing a positive response, consider shifting your approach. In the midst of a heavy data set or deep-dive analytics review, a well-timed anecdote, story or application can bring back your audience. Pause and ask if there are questions or further clarification needed.

How do you tell a compelling data story?

There are many ways to tell stories. Some approaches are better than others at conveying meaning. Simple frameworks are good for setting up problems and solutions, or for highlighting key metrics and data points.

According to Catherine Cote at Harvard Business School, there are four key storytelling elements to consider when you prepare your data presentation:

  • Characters: the actors, players, or stakeholders including portrayals of your subject, audience, or both.
  • Setting: the backdrop to the data, the environment, and/or the time period in which data was collected.
  • Conflict: the catalyst, problem, question, or opportunity to solve; it’s not always bad or villainous.
  • Resolution: the outcome you seek to drive and/or what you want your audience to understand or do.

Thinking about your presentation in this manner will also help anchor you. When you’re sifting through your results, it can be tempting to show a graph for every single data point simply because it exists. Instead, focus on what data is most essential and useful to illustrate each one of these storytelling elements.

The Four Data Storytelling Development Phases

Great stories often undergo their own struggle. Characters, setting, conflict, and resolution can take time to develop. Some stories are less intensive than others but a well-formed story normally goes through some level of iteration and refining.

To become a better storyteller, MIT Sloan lecturer Miro Kazakoff encourages developing the habit of “ruthless editing” to ensure information is presented without bias. This requires honing in on what’s important and eliminating what’s not with the aim of keeping things simple. Data storytelling skills like stories themselves require time and discipline to get better.

Here are four phases of developing a data storytelling presentation where you should be sure to edit your work thoughtfully.

  • Discovery: Be very clear on what data is needed to answer the question.
  • Analysis: Don’t force data into a pre-existing storyline; be willing to pivot.
  • Preparation: Synthesize your words and your visuals to the most important takeaways.
  • Presentation: Frame the information to your unique audience.

Final Thoughts

By using storytelling techniques in your data presentations, you’ll be more effective at engaging your audience. Be deliberate in helping people identify how the data can drive business decisions and inform marketing strategies. Your audience will be more receptive to your insights and expertise. They’ll remember what you’ve told them long after the presentation is over.

About Response Labs

We keep our team sharp and support professional development at Response Labs, dedicating time to practicing our storytelling skills. Our Data and Strategy team recently hosted a lunch-and-learn session dedicated to this topic. While we have experts in data strategy, we expect every RLer to be able to tell data-driven stories that provide insights and value for our clients.

Response Labs, a Capitol Communicator sponsor,  is a customer relationship management (CRM) and loyalty marketing agency. Our team of innovative digital marketing experts delivers data-informed, personalized messaging at scale to increase engagement and fuel revenue growth. We don’t shy away from the complex intersection of data science, media, technology, and creativity. In fact, that’s where we thrive. We help brands find opportunities to connect with customers meaningfully. Our purpose is to Make Every Message Matter™.

About the Author

Capitol Communicator and sponsors host various guest postings on relevant topics of interest to the advertising, marketing, public relations and media professional community that Capitol Communicator serves.


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