CATEGORY: Public Sector

The power of data story telling

The power of data story telling

Data underpins our digital world and lives. However, finding insights is just the first step in driving change. The real value comes when people can use insights to weave a narrative that drives action and makes a tangible impact. 

In this article, we’ll explore what a data story is and how you can create a clear and concise narrative around your data, whether you are using it for senior leadership buy-in or as part of a community engagement campaign. 


Data’s very important place in the 2023 comms skillset 

Don't just take my word for it:

“Data literacy is a key skillset that communicators should embrace and develop their capabilities in… Understanding, engaging with, and applying data into practice will result in more purposeful, creative ideas – ideas with impact, ideas that can change lives…”  

Shayoni Lynn, Founder, Lynn PR (2022’s fastest-growing agency) 


“We are looking for superhero communicators who combine the data analysis, numeracy and software savvy of an engineer with the storytelling, creativity and empathy of an artist.”

Simon Baugh, Chief Exec, Government Communications Service (GCS) 

What is a data story? 

Data storytelling is the process of translating data analyses into understandable terms in order to influence a business decision or action. Data analysis focuses on creating valuable insights from data to give further context and understanding to an intended audience.  

So instead of looking at it purely from a data-driven perspective, data storytelling wraps that data in a narrative that's more understandable. 

What is the number 1 rule of storytelling? 

You must grab the audience's attention. It seems like a basic no-brainer, but if you don't follow this first rule, you'll never make it any further! 


Using data storytelling to present an argument 

I am not talking about an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one. I Am referring to a reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory:  

An argument typically consists of 3 parts:  

  1. a claim or thesis 

  1. statement(s) of reason(s) 

  1. evidence / support / proofs / counterarguments 

The claim includes information you are asking readers to accept as true, or actions you want them to accept and enact, and must be supported by specific reasons, along with evidence that supports those reasons. 

In planning an argument, the first step is to define your position and make a claim. Obviously, your stance is your opinion, for your arguments should reflect your point of view in some way. Once you define your position and make a claim, you need to consider the context of the argument—the setting—as well as the data or assumptions that are agreed upon or incontrovertible within that context. This will help your readers understand the background of the argument and the accepted or understood positions 

Your reasons state why you are taking this position, why you believe what you do. You must spell it out for the reader, for an argument requires more than a good thesis. Any argument will have a list of supporting reasons and evidence. These reasons should be concrete and supported with evidence, your data. 

Why is telling a story with data important? 

Make it meaningful 

Historically, cultures and societies have told stories; from cave paintings to novels to movies; stories have been the primal form for the transmission of meaningful information. 

 Stories have the power to help us understand meaningful information and, as a consequence, can shape our values, determine our prejudices, and influence our decisions.  

Make it memorable 

Using stories to remember - known as the Story Method - is a simple technique used by memory champions. The method’s effectiveness is rooted in the use of narratives ability to aid the memory process, via the emotional aspect of a story which can engage more parts of the brain, making the story, and its elements, easier to recall. Stanford Graduate School of Business found that stories are up to 22x more memorable than facts and figures alone. Storytelling conveys important information in an elegant way. 

Make it irrefutable 

You data provides robust evidence to justify your point, show how you have arrived at your conclusions and prove that it's based on solid grounds. Data and statistics have the advantage of seeming objective, authoritative, and factual, but critical audiences will want to know about the sources and methods for determining your statistical evidence – so ensure you have your sources. 

Consider your audience 

The next step is to determine who the story will be conveyed to and what their backgrounds are. This is important in determining the technical complexity of the analysis and what components of the story the listeners will want to learn about. For example, an executive team will likely be more interested in understanding the broader business implications, while a data science team will be more focused on the statistical aspects. 

Determine what data matters 

It’s common to get overwhelmed with data when constructing a data story. Modern businesses collect so much information that determining which datasets are most relevant to the broader narrative can be challenging. In general, it’s important to start by identifying the data that can inform the topics you’ll want to explore instead of looking at all the possible data available. For example, if you’re planning on telling a story about customer experience then product usage data, sales data, and customer feedback may all be relevant, but employee experience data may not be. Doing so will ensure that the key points do not get diluted and that listeners or readers do not get distracted. 


What story do you want to tell? 

Supporting your agenda 

The authors of these articles invariably have an agenda, something that they want the reader to agree with. 

Structure your story 

Telling a traditional story often includes providing an introduction, a rising action that builds tension through problems, a climax that provides a crucial moment or insight, a falling action that resolves the problems, and a final resolution and retrospection. 

This type of flow is often still valuable in telling a data story. Leveraging a structure that people are familiar with will help capture their attention, create a framework for information consumption they’re already familiar with, and allow them to better understand the relevance and importance of the story that the data is telling. 

Create a clear narrative 

In the end, data storytelling is a form of presentation — often through public speaking — and therefore you should strive for telling a clear narrative that the audience can easily follow. Speak clearly and slowly and avoid tangents or irrelevant points. 

Edit until the story is clear and concise 

When presenting a data story, regardless of the topic, it’s important that the story is clean and to the point. As with other writing and presentation, you should continuously review and edit the narrative until it’s extremely clear. As Blaise Pascal famously said “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” The same is true for data stories. Avoiding fluff that distracts from the main points is critical to ensure the audience is focused on what really matters. 

Relevance is key 

Data stories are often packed with information and therefore you should only include points that are relevant to your core narrative. Tangential or otherwise irrelevant data will just distract your audience so should not be included 

Data must be timely 

Trends and correlations can change quickly. Therefore, you should use the most up-to-date data possible to ensure that the analysis is fresh and not telling an outdated story.  

Use data ethically 

While using relevant data is important, you should also not cherry-pick data to tell in inaccurate narrative, nor should you present misleading relationships such as spurious correlations. While it may be tempting to use data to prove a point that benefits you, this is not only unethical but also doesn’t help tell a true story. 


The Five C’s of Storytelling 


Circumstance establishes your scene and provides the critical information to your story. It is the context of it. Circumstance is going to tell you where, when and why the story is taking place. This is where you’re going to give the listeners any information they might need in order to understand the story. If I’m telling a story about cultural differences in communication this would be where I might convey how gestures have different meetings depending on where you are. 


Curiosity is going to be the most important of the five C’s of storytelling. It’s how you’re going to draw them in and keep them interested. Especially difficult in our time poor, instant gratification society. Curiosity occurs when there is a gap between what we know and what we want to know.  


The human element in your story is huge. People want a connection. A character to love or one they can empathise with. Characters create someone they can relate to or want to be like.  


Will your story get people talking? Does it invoke emotion in them? Will they share it again? People will remember feelings more than words. If you can stoke their emotion than they will make it a point to remember your words and more importantly want to repeat them to someone else. 


Conflict is the final of the five C’s of storytelling. It’s the one we try to avoid but without it our stories won’t exist. Conflict is the problem. The reason for the story. Your conflict should also be one others can identify with. Is it something that a potential customer needs a solution for? A problem a potential boss would appreciate knowing that you were capable of tackling? Your conflict is also your answer to the dilemma. 

Data stories don't always need conflicts. However, if this element of the data story is skipped, the resolution is a recommended course of action. 


With data storytelling, clarity, relevance, and ethical considerations are paramount, ensuring that the narrative not only captures attention but is compelling and inspiring. Insights can drive meaningful change, but the key lies in crafting stories that not only inform but also resonate with the audience. 

In the words of W. Edwards Deming, “Without datayou're just another person with an opinion” 

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