Book Review: Storytelling with Data – A data visualization guide for business professionals


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This book is written by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, who has worked at and with some of the most data-driven organizations on the planet as well as some of the most mission-driven, data-free institutions. She also writes the popular blog storytellingwithdata.com.

The 25 takeaways I got out of this book are:

  1. We’ve all been victims of bad slideware… It is too easy to generate tables, charts and graphs… And if you think that is not a big issue, a Google search of “PowerPoint kills” returns almost a million hits.
  2. Having all the information in the world at our fingertips does not make it easier to communicate: it makes it harder. The more information you are dealing with, the more difficult it is to filter down the most important bits.
  3. In school, we learn a lot about language and math. On the language side, we learn how to put words together into sentences and into stories. With math, we learn to make sense of numbers. But it is rare that these two sides are paired: no one peached us how to tell stories with numbers.
  4. Technology has enabled us to amass greater and greater amounts of data and there is an accompanying growing desire to make sense out of all this data. Being able to visualize data and tell stories with it is key to turning it into information that can be used to drive better decision making.
  5. Anyone can put some data into a graphing application and create a graph. This is remarkable, considering that the process of creating a graph was historically reserved for scientists or those in other highly technical roles. And scary, because without a clear path to follow, our best intentions and efforts (combined with oft-questionable tool defaults) can lead us in some really bad directions: 3D, meaningless color, pie charts.
  6. There is story in our data. But your tools do not know what the story is. That is where it takes you – the analyst or communicator of the information – to bring that story visually and contextually to life. That process is the focus of this book… to shift from simply showing data to storytelling with data.
  7. Being able to tell stories with data is a skill that is becoming ever more important in our world of increasing data and desire for data-driven decision making… Data visualization is a single step in the analytical process.
  8. I have always been drawn to the space where mathematics and business intersect. My educational background is mathematics and business, which enables me to communicate effectively with both sides – given that they don’t always speak the same language… I love being able to take the science of data and use it to inform better business decisions… One key to success is being able to communicate effectively visually using data.”
  9. Six key lessons to tell stories with data: 1) understand the context; 2) choose an appropriate display visually; 3) eliminate cutter; 4) focus attention where you want it; 5) think like a designer; and 6) tell a story.
  10. Success in data visualization does not start with data visualization… Attention and time should be paid to understanding the context for the need to communicate.
  11. Exploratory vs. explanatory analysis: the first one is what you do to understand the data and figure out what might be noteworthy or interesting to highlight to others – it is like hunting for pearls in oysters. The second one means you have a specific thing you want to explain, a specific story you want to tell – probably about those two pearls you found.
  12. Your audience – the more specific you can be about your audience is, the better position you will be in for successful communication. Avoid general audiences such as “internal and external stakeholders” or “anyone who may be interested” – by trying to communicate to too many different people with disparate needs at once, you put yourself in a position where you can’t communicate to any one of them as effectively as you could if you narrowed your target audience… Identifying the decision maker is one way of narrowing your audience. The more you know about your audience, the better positioned you will be to understand how to resonate with them and form a communication that will meet their needs and yours.
  13. You – it is also helpful to think about the relationship that you have with your audience and how you expect that they will perceive you… Do they already trust you as an expert, or do you need to work to establish credibility?
  14. What – What do you need your audience to know or do? You should always want your audience to know or do something. Action words help act as thought starters as you determine what you are asking of your audience: accept, agree, begin, believe, change, collaborate, commence, create, defend, desire, differentiate, do, emphasize, empower, encourage, engage, establish, examine, facilitate, familiarize, form, implement, include, influence, invest, invigorate, know, learn, like, persuade, plan, promote, pursue, recommend, receive, remember, report, respond, secure, support, simplify, start, try, understand, validate.
  15. Mechanism – How will you communicate to your audience? The method you will use to communicate to your audience has implications on a number of factors, including the amount of control you will have over how audiences takes in the information and the level of detail that needs to be explicit. We can think of the communication mechanism along a continuum, with live presentation at the left and a written document or email to the right… With a live presentation you are in full control of the information, but not all details may be included.
  16. Tone – What tone do you want your communication to set? How – Articulate What data is available that will help me make my point?
  17. The 3-minute story – If you had only three minutes to tell your audience what they need to know, what would you say?
  18. Big Idea – It has three components: it must articulate your unique point of view, it must convey what is at stake, and it must be a complete sentence.
  19. Storyboarding – The storyboard establishes a structure for your communication. It is a visual outline of the content you plan to create… Establishing a structure early on will set you up for success.
  20. Choosing an effective visual – “When I look back over the more than 150 visuals that I created for workshops and consulting projects in the past year, there were only a dozen different types of visuals that I used” (see pages 36-37)
  21. One culprit can contribute to excessive or extraneous cognitive load is something defined as clutter. These are visual elements that take up space but do not increase understanding… There is a simple reason we should aim to reduce clutter: because it makes our visuals appear more complicated than necessary.
  22. Gestalt principles of visual perception – proximity, similarity, enclosure, closure, continuity, and connection. These principles help you understand how your audience sees and allow you to identify and remove unnecessary visual elements.
  23. The magic of story – When you see a great play, watch a captivating movie, or read a fantastic book, you have experienced the magic of a story. A good story grabs your attention and takes you on a journey, evoking an emotional response. In the middle of it, you find yourself not wanting to turn away to put it down. After finishing it – a day, a week, or even a month later – you could easily describe it to a friend… Wouldn’t it be great if we could ignite such energy and emotion in our audiences?
  24. Aristotle introduced a basic but profound idea: that story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. He proposed a three-act structure of plays… The first one sets up the story, the second one makes up the bulk of the story, and the third act resolves the story and its subplots… Conflict and tension are an integral part of a story.
  25. Pulling it all together – Understand the context, choose an appropriate display, eliminate clutter, draw attention where you want it, think like a designer, and tell a story.

The author also presents interesting websites like storytellingwithdata.com, duarte.com, beyondbulletpoints.com. Also, other books like Data Points by Nathan Yau, and Resonate by Nancy Duarte.

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