Hari Patience-Davies explains the difference between data storytelling and storytelling with data.

I get a lot of questions about telling stories and data, and the first thing I always have to ask is, “Is this data storytelling or storytelling with data?”

Most people ask, “What’s the difference?”

So I thought I maybe should break it down a bit.

Data Storytelling is when you start with the data. You have some research or analytics and you want to present them. You want to find the story that’s hidden in the data and bring it out into the light.

Hans Rosling is a master at Data Storytelling. He’s my favourite data storytelling and I use his 200 countries in 200 years video all the time in the storytelling training I deliver. Literally, I’ll take any excuse to bring it in:

Look at how Hans takes the audience through the data here. There are over 120,000 different data points plotted on his interactive graphs, but he never tells us what any individual data point is. He focuses on the overall trend, adds pertinent asides that help us understand what we’re looking at but never focuses in on the detail. It’s all about the comparison and the trend.

When we’re talking about Storytelling with Data, we don’t tend to start with a huge pile of data or metrics to comb through and analyse. Instead there may be key statistics that we can use to tell our story, key individual statistics that show the depth or scale of the current problem.

When it comes to Storytelling with Data it’s about picking and choose the right data to support the story that you already know you want to tell. Jamie Oliver in his TED talk knows the narrative he wants to convey – American children are in danger from their current food habits – and has identified the data and statistics that tell that story. Watch how he does it:

He focuses on individual statistics – shocking statistics – which support his argument that we need to teach every child about food. But not too many, Jamie has a lot of numbers and charts in this speech – but nowhere near 1000 data points, let alone 120,000.

So knowing which approach you want to take with data and storytelling, that will help you make decisions about how you want to bring data into your presentations.

If you’re looking to do Data Storytelling:

  • Look for the big picture – what are the trends? Where do you see them in the data and is there something which is affecting them which should be called out?
  • Build striking graphics that show the scale and impact of the data you’re analysing without getting bogged down in the detail.
  • Find anecdotes about individual data points (the micro) that also reflects the overall picture (the macro) – an individual story can be easier for an audience to identify with, and then you can step back and say, this is but one of the X cases we’re dealing with.

If you’re looking to do Storytelling with Data:

  • Know the story you want to tell and look for the data that supports it
  • Focus on metrics which are make an impact – don’t bring in a data point just to have data, find the data that adds to the message you want to deliver.
  • Explain these metrics using simple language and analogies – don’t just say something is 10,000 metres tall, tell your audience how many Empire State Buildings or Mount Everests that is. Put it in terms the audience can comprehend – some numbers are just too big for this and need context to have impact.

Taking the time to consider what type of story you want to tell before you start pulling together metrics can save a lot of wasted time later on.

Image by fauxels from Pexels

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