The Building Blocks of Data-Driven Storytelling

Data is more than hype. If you’re a marketer, it’s your lifeblood. If you’re a writer, it’s your best friend and worst enemy.

Numbers are double-edged swords — they’re just as powerful as they are confusing and potentially damaging. Position your stats as a power tool. It starts with storytelling.

“Just like you wouldn’t expect an author to write a book without a plot, or an entrepreneur to launch a new venture without a business plan, you can’t expect to march blindly into creating a report or article using data without knowing what you want to say,” wrote Myles Harrison for his blog, Everyday Analytics.

Here are the building blocks to guide your approach:

1. Audience Connection

Math is no different from sports — some people like it, and some people don’t. Some people are Olympians, and others would prefer to ‘just get by.’ Some think of a math as a hobby, and others are full-time statisticians. When writing about numbers, you need to prioritize your audience.

“Understanding exactly what information is important for your audience and presenting it in a way that is meaningful can greatly affect the understanding of the intended message,” explained Rachel Barron-Simpson in a presentation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Numbers are subjective, and as a blogger, writer, or marketer, it’s up to you to forge that bond.

2. Humanization

Numbers are far from friendly to the human-eye. Especially when you get into  fractions and decimal points, you risk causing unnecessary confusion for your viewers and readers.

Why mention that something grew by 345% when you can say that your success rates ‘more than tripled’ instead? Choose your numbers wisely. Always seek to transcribe quantitative concepts into straightforward and handpicked words.

3.  Bias Illumination

Numbers aren’t science — they’re an art. Every data set comes with its own biases. That’s because a range of decisions and judgment calls influence quantitative analyses — your sampling design, statistical techniques, and observations are all a power of the human eye.

“Data and data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design,” wrote Kate Crawford for the Harvard Business Review Blog. “We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations.”

If you try to find data without bias, you’ll be chasing your tail. As a writer, blogger, or marketer, what you should do instead is call out these short biases. Describe the analyst’s sample, and play devil’s advocate. Never accept numbers at face value.

4. Forethought

What’s key to storytelling through data is how you select your numbers. Your judgment plays an equally important role to the numbers themselves.

“One key role we play in the process is choosing which data to look at,” wrote Justin Fox for HBR.

Every number, percentage, decimal, data point, chart, or graph deserves a critical eye. Use your smarts and better judgment.

Images courtesy of dvanzuijlekom/flickr, Paul Lowry/flickr

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