By Payal Parikh, Director of Client Engagement at Heinz Marketing

With technological advances we’ve seen over the last two decades on data visualization and integrating data from various sources, there are still gaps in how we process that data, how we present it, and how we tell the story behind it.

In my early career days I had been guilty of presenting all the data I could find into ‘pretty’ charts and  would scroll through my slides in a room full of executives. I assumed just presenting the data I had access to was good enough and the executives could take away the key highlights by themselves from each slide or ask questions if they needed to. I knew the data inside out, so when questioned “what happened during that spike?”, I knew exactly what caused it. But I never highlighted it on my chart, nor told the story behind that data. That’s where I made a huge mistake! I never tied my data to a story!

My moment of shift was when I read Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. This book is for anyone who wants to communicate something to someone using data. If you are in the business of effectively displaying quantitative information, this book has many practical examples to guide you through.

There is always a story behind your data

There is always a story in your data your tools don’t know about. It’s the human in you that can showcase the information, bringing that data to life. It doesn’t matter if you are using Tableau, Power BI, DOMO, other BI tools, or creating charts from our friendly Excel. If you don’t project a story, those charts aren’t saying anything to your audience.

Your audience has provided you their precious time so you can help them understand your data. The easier you make this for them, the faster your message will be absorbed. You don’t need a paragraph to explain your chart; you need a highlight of your data, you need a focal point.

It is becoming ever more critical to tell stories with data for data-driven decision making. And it’s a skill that is not easy to find and takes a lot of work to develop. The analytics team can pull data and analyze it, but they are not necessarily trained in communicating the analysis in an effective way, they cannot formulate the story behind the numbers through charts that tell the story.

Before you start on your journey to data analysis and communicating to your audience, you need to first understand your audience. Suppose you are presenting monthly KPIs to your board. Keep that context in mind when figuring out what to show then, what kind of takeaways you want for them, and what decisions you want to help them make, and then start thinking about what data you need to pull for your analysis.

Once you have the context, here are some important considerations:

5 things to consider for telling your story

1. Pick the right level of data

This one is tied into the context piece I explained above. There’s a lot of data clutter or noise you want to cut through. For your monthly board meeting audience, how many registrations you managed to get in each webinar is not as important as the ROI on that webinar. How many email clicks is not as important as what percentage of key accounts are engaging with your content. You get the point, right?

2. Select the right visualization chart

Once you’ve decided on the right data level and what you want to highlight, now comes the hard part. And I still struggle with this. I play around with different types of charts sometimes to figure out which one best tells my story. Common examples include bar charts (horizontal or vertical), line charts, scatter charts, stacked bar charts, funnel charts, and waterfall charts. Pie charts and donut charts are something I use when it is necessary and if the information needs to be communicated as parts of a whole. I try to avoid 3D as it is confusing to the eyes.

Data Visualization Charts

3. Show trends and/or highlight key areas

Now I have my data and I have created a chart that works best for my use case. What’s next?  Here is what I recommend.

Add a trendline to your chart if it applies to your use case. When there are a lot of ups and downs in your bar and line chart, adding a trendline helps to see if you have improved overall or not. I would also highlight any focal points, if applicable, on the slide. The trendline draws your audience’s attention to what you want them to see—they help you tell your story.

chart with trendline

4. Add key takeaways to your slide

If sending out the deck to your audience, add a key takeaway on each slide. Key takeaways help the reader scan through the slides and understand the story behind the chart.  Key takeaways help frame questions for leadership to focus on and address. The key takeaways should highlight what is working, or uncover problem areas where your team needs help. They help in starting meaningful conversations with the audience.

5. Clean it up!

There are often some visual elements on charts I consider unnecessary. They can take attention away from what you want to highlight. The first thing I do is remove the grid lines. It seems like a simple and obvious fix, but I’ve seen many charts with gridlines included. Remove other elements that may drive away focus, such as the chart title, X-and Y-axis, legends—elements that are not important to your story.

You can take it a step further by adding a different color to the part where you want your audience to focus on. The whole idea is to add elements that add to your story and remove those that clutter it.  These considerations are useful when you are presenting to the team, to the board, showcasing your thought leadership, or communicating something essential about your study to the mass public.

To learn more, I also encourage you to read Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It has tons of data presented in charts but in a very meaningful and impactful way.

Please post your comments in the questions below or reach out to me via email if you would like to get some more ideas on how to present your data in a meaningful way.