Telling a compelling story by way of data is more important now than ever before but doing it well is often easier said than done. In this post you’ll learn what it takes to not only make your story come to life but make a lasting impression using the power of visuals.
Imagine this. Your firm has spent the past three months and more money than you care to admit conducting research on employee engagement and now you have hundreds of pages of data to turn into an educational, yet exciting piece of thought leadership. You may be looking at the document thinking where do I start? What stays? What goes? Well, you’re not alone.
Data is complex and often difficult to understand using words alone. Finding a way to represent the information in a digestible, interesting way is important. Yes, you want readers to absorb the content quickly, but you also want them to understand what they’re consuming. And, post-consumption, you’d like them to be prepared to take some actionable steps.
As important as the data itself is, the story it tells and the way that story is told is more important because as the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
THE CASE FOR DATA VISUALIZATION
I typically don’t understand a complex concept or idea without seeing it laid out in front of me first. Apparently, I’m not alone. According to research conducted by MIT, 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual and 50% of the human brain is active in visual processing. So, if you’re like me and a large portion of the population, you rely on visuals to guide you and provide context around big ideas. You’re essentially a “data visualizer.”
Data visualization is simply a way to pictorially or graphically represent difficult concepts so that patterns and trends are easily seen and understood. Easy concept, right? Well, what tends to be of upmost concern once the data is in-hand is how to visually represent it. You’ve got a set of basic tools to choose from such as line graphs, histograms and pie charts, but not everyone’s data can or should be represented as such. Maybe what needs to be conveyed requires a little more complexity in not only design, but utilization.
Yes, everyone’s methods and needs of communication are not the same. The avenues of representation are considered boundless, but these days, people are most interested in how they can easily analyze information and know what they need to take away from it. And at the end of the day, effective data visualization is about helping both the reader and your organization.
So, now that you know what data visualization is and why you need it, you’re probably wondering how to turn what you have into something grand. Valid. How you choose to present your data depends on two core elements: your story and your audience.
BEFORE YOU START, TEST THE DATA YOU HAVE
Alone, data is just a bunch of facts and figures. To make it work in your favor, you need to unlock the story behind it, which isn’t always easy. You’re likely working with a lot of information and sorting out what’s important and what’s not can be challenging. So how do you know what to focus on? To start, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the data timely? – Most data has an expiration date and it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered irrelevant or outdated because newer, better data is available. Before using what you have, consider whether or not it’ll be noteworthy by the time you’re ready to publish.
- Does it offer a unique POV? – If there’s no differentiating factor between the way you think and the way your competitors think, your data is likely to get lost in a sea of similarity.
- Does it evoke an emotion or action? – Make sure the data you have is interesting to your ideal clients. If it doesn’t transfer into something actionable, it’s likely readers won’t want to engage with it for long, feel excited about or do anything with the information consumed after the fact.
- Is it memorable? – Post read, will the data be remembered? Is there information in your data set that could change the way your clients think about a topic? Could it entice them to share with their peers or with other thought leaders?
TIPS FOR TURNING YOUR DATA INTO A STORY
Once you’re comfortable that the data you have is worth sharing, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll share it. There are three important things to consider when thinking about the role of storytelling in data visualization:
- The story should bring the big picture to life, but also highlight new, interesting insights. – Every story starts with a big idea and your data is no different. Take a top down approach. Outline the overarching story but then break it down into smaller parts that emphasize important information relevant to the bigger picture. Be cognizant of how each part fits together to present the story in its entirety.
- It should provide clarity around the data, not confusion. – Looking at a visual representation of the data is supposed to make the story easier to digest and comprehend. If it doesn’t do that, it serves no value. In this regard, generally, simplification is critical. What data can you remove to tell the story more clearly? What is the minimum amount of data you need to share for the client to understand what the data says?
- It should not be misleading. – That said, if removing data skews the story whatsoever, take a step back and re-think what the story should be. The worse thing you can do is mislead your readers into believing something or worse sharing something that’s untrue. You can’t purposely omit data to tell a story you’d like to tell. The ramifications will likely be damaging.
EXAMPLES OF DATA VISUALIZATION IN ACTION
An example that embodies these best practices is the National Center for the Middle Market’s middle market indicator (MMI) report. (Full disclosure – the Center is a client). This quarterly report is designed to provide businesses with an outlook on anticipated economic performance of the middle market. And as you can imagine, after surveying 1,000 C-suite executives in middle market companies, the amount of data available is massive. The audience is diverse – policymakers, middle market executives, journalists. This makes it critical to find ways to visually present the data in clear and compelling ways. For promotional purposes, creation of a physical report was necessary, but they also realized they needed a way to share this story in a timely, yet engaging manner. And from this, an interactive landing page was born.
This page, which currently highlights 2018 Q4 data provides readers with a condensed version of the data by way of interactivity. Upon scroll, layers of the story begin to unfold. Upfront, readers are presented with bite-sized pieces of data, first starting with facts and figures related to the overarching theme of the report. As readers move through the page, the story deepens but doesn’t increase in complexity; the same small data sets are presented in a visually simplistic way. On the other end, for those wanting a deeper dive into the research, also available on the page is a 2-minute and 30-second video that summarizes the data. Also, included is a downloadable version of the study for those who want to share the information or read it offline. The Center was able to pair a simple data visualization concept, using basic graphical elements like iconography and charts, with a more detailed avenue of delivery, interactivity, to tell a complete story that’s easily accessible to current and future viewers.
Another example from the Center is this new report focused on the correlation and impact of culture and revenue in the workplace. With this report, the Center wanted to increase the level of sophistication and interactivity of the page. Though similar to the MMI report landing page in many ways, incorporating simple, easy to read charts and graphics, this new page captures the data in a way that allows the reader to interact with the story as much or as little as they like. On page load, pieces of the content appear in different sections of the story, but in order to fully engage with the layers of a particular section, the user must manually navigate through them. This gives the reader complete control of what they consume while presenting the information in a captivating way.
One factor heavily considered in the creation of both pages was the intended audience. Was this method of communicating the data going to resonate with their target audience? Though it’s not always a top of mind consideration point, it’s become more and more important to consider the avenues in which your audience consumes content and find ways to meet them where they are in their consumption preferences.
KNOW WHAT RESONATES WITH YOUR AUDIENCE
So, you know the story you want to tell and how to tell it, but now the question becomes who do you want to tell it to. Are you speaking to employees? Are you trying to reach a particular industry? More specifically, are you trying to reach people with specific roles and titles in that industry?
In the financial space, graphical representation of data via line charts and bar graphs is an expected and necessary means of communicating information to audiences, however, the complexity of the visualization and the data shown depends on who’s specifically being targeted. For example, if a financial advisor wants to show the correlation between cash flow, budget and expenses to a client, they may use a simple line chart. On the other hand, if that same financial advisor wanted to share this information with a colleague, they may do so using a financial software or data platform to orchestrate complex charts that not only show the current correlation between cash flow, budget and expenses, but the projected correlation 5 to 10 years down the line.
At the end of the day, knowing who the data should be geared for will help decide the best method of action. It could be the difference between the success and failure of your content.
MAKE YOUR DATA MATTER
Data visualization is not a new concept, but it is constantly evolving. And as it evolves, consumers will not only expect the ways in which it’s created to be more sophisticated and appealing, they’ll want it to be even easier to comprehend and consume. But don’t let that scare you. Instead, take advantage of what data visualization can offer. If you can tell a compelling story to your target audience by way of visuals, you’ll be better equipped to drive action, which will in turn yield positive results and hopefully keep bringing them back for more.