The first website I ever built was for a band I was in. It was neon green (because of Weezer’s green album) and the font was blue (because I didn’t understand color schemes). As one of the 1.8 million users on Geocities, I knew it was a horrible website, but it was the first step toward a new love: love of the Internet and the way it allows us to create and share information.

My website wasn’t designed according to best practice, and the color choices and lack of photos meant it wasn’t user-friendly. Any user who actually viewed it most likely belonged to the group that reads less than 20% of the content on a web page and takes nothing away from it because of the design.

Luckily for me, my website wasn’t the only one poorly designed. Most information on most web pages was poorly designed and text heavy, with small fonts and very few graphics. For instance, compare MSN in 2001 to MSN in 2015:

poor storytelling

Sharing information has evolved. Websites are no longer small text on boring pages, but information that is rich in context and visual aids. The time is right to take a deep dive into data storytelling. Let me explain why.

Why You Should Tell a Story with Data

After performing some quick research online, I’ve learned that when we learn new information, the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain are activated. These areas allow us to understand context but not feel emotion. When facts are associated with a story, the facts become more memorable, because the personal connection and emotional charge created by the story engage more of the brain. Do you remember how much content is usually read on a page?

Telling a story with data and information persuades your audience for two main reasons.

First, you are engaging your audience with the story, connecting your audience to the story emotionally, and connecting your audience and yourself. This helps your audience remember for longer the information you are sharing.

Second, people are more likely to be persuaded to your view if they hear a story over data alone. One study by Deborah Small at the University of Pennsylvania found that users are more likely to make an emotion-based decision first; then they use the data to justify or rationalize their decision.

How to Tell a Story with Data

1.Find the Narrative

First, find the story to tell. Make sure the story builds momentum, and has a hook or a captivating purpose. Make sure the story connects the facts and holds the reader’s attention. Remember, you are competing for your audience’s time and memory.

2.Identify Your Audience

With any story, know your audience. This will help you craft your message and share your information. According to Harvard Business Review, there are five main audiences to consider:

  • Novice —new, but doesn’t want oversimplification
  • Generalist — aware of the topic, but looks for an overview
  • Management — seeks in-depth, actionable understanding of the story’s intricacies and interrelationships, and access to detail
  • Expert — wants more exploration and discovery and less storytelling
  • Executive — wants to know the significance and conclusions of weighted probabilities

3.Build Your Story While Being Objective and Uncensored

Next, build your story. Base it on what the data actually says, not what you want it to say. Be transparent; don’t hide any data that may raise doubts. If there is any such data, double-check that your story remains accurate.

4.Create Supporting Graphics

Telling a story isn’t just verbal or written communication; it’s visual as well. Use visual aids to communicate data. For example, which visual aid below helps you understand the impact of a few select blogs on our site throughout the US during a seven-day period—the data table or the map?

data storytelling & visualization data visualization

5.Edit and Revise

Creating the story is great, but having the perfect story is better. Time is usually better spent editing, revising, and improving an idea than just coming up with more ideas.

What successes have you seen with telling a story with data? Please share your examples with a comment—and if you found this article valuable, please share it with your friends.

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