Data storytelling is much in vogue these days says Matt Cooper, CEO of SkillShare, and “many brand executives are now asking their marketing teams how they too can tell engaging stories with numbers.”
Sounds great, eh? Come up with some relevant numbers, craft a jazzy-looking infographic, and wait for cheers of admiration. Unfortunately, notes Mr. Cooper, many organizations don’t have a clear idea of what’s involved in data storytelling. As he so succinctly puts it, “Companies are often surprised to learn that storytelling with data is much more difficult than simply throwing some numbers and statistics into a few colorful charts.”
Data storytelling comes with its own set of best practices:
- Use a data journalist. Who knew there was such a field? But there is, and it’s a fast-growing segment of the media business. Data journalists can tell you what’s newsworthy, how to present it, how to assess its accuracy, how to source and reference it, and how to make sure it isn’t misleading. Sounds great, but what do you do if you don’t have the money to hire one? I recommend staying on top of trends, bookmarking credible sources, and talking to knowledgeable peers. Of course, you’ll also need to make sure that you can legitimately use the data you find.
- Make sure your data is high quality. Cooper notes, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen infographics that cite unscientific internet polls or pull apocryphal statistics seemingly from thin air.” Ouch. You should be looking at academic studies or official government statistics, company internal data, or you should consider commissioning a poll. Now, polls are expensive, but you can go the DIY route with options like Survey Monkey or Google Consumer Surveys. If one of your colleagues has survey experience, consider leveraging that.
- Consider emotional resonance. Though numbers and statistics may strike you as being cold, they can tell a story that evokes an emotional response. Consider, for example, the decimation of elephant herds worldwide or deaths from drinking filthy water. Of course, there are good stories to tell, too.
- Be clear. Says Mr. Cooper, “Some of the worst data visualizations are the ones you have to stare at for several minutes before you even comprehend what they’re trying to say.” I love infographics and enjoy working on them. And I particularly appreciate the ones that are quick and easy to grasp. You need to make sure that your data tells a story your audience can understand and use.
- Go where the data leads you. Cooper comments that, all too often, companies are looking for data that supports their agendas. This approach can compromise your integrity. And it can also cause you to miss out on a great story. “If you begin with the answer already in mind, you may be missing out on a bigger or more interesting story.”
I love data. Effective data storytelling is what makes your message come alive and helps differentiate it from what we laughingly refer to as marketing fluff. Not that marketing fluff doesn’t have its place, but data supplements fluff and makes it possible to tell a stronger story.