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What's Next for Business Intelligence? Storytelling

Storytelling? I know. I was skeptical too. What on earth could that random creative writing course you took in college have to do with business intelligence (BI)? As it turns out, a lot. BI just isn’t that effective without some of those storytelling skills.

Let’s start with an example. The visualizations below follow common data visualization best practices. The measures and dimensions are labeled, there are no garish colors, and it is easy to tie the counties on the map to the bar chart on the right. What do you see?

An example of Tableau's data visualization capabilities

You probably noticed there is something going on with sales in Calhoun County, GA. But, why are we looking at sales? And why just in Florida and Georgia? What is the story behind Calhoun County? We’re missing the context, and we’re missing the story.

Why Tell Stories?

Stories move people. They inform the listener and inspire action. Data stories elevate key metrics, bar charts, and scatterplots to persuasive and effective messages that are difficult to ignore. In the words of Steve Jobs:

Those insights you found in your data may seem self-evident and obvious to you, but what about to your audience? Data storytelling can help you to bridge that gap and carry your audience through analytic logic. Telling stories with your data is not always the easiest thing to do. You’re an expert in analytics not creative writing, right? Well, the industry is changing. And to have impact in your organization, storytelling is quickly becoming a required analytic skill. Here are a few steps to get you started telling stories with your data.

What’s Your Point? Support Your Point. Plot Twist! Now What?

1. What’s Your Point?

First, figure out what you are trying to say. I know that sounds simple enough, but try distilling your message into a single sentence. Write it down. Seriously. If you can’t state your point in a sentence, how can you expect your audience to?

“My Point Is ...”

The map above, for example: My point is that sales are much higher in Calhoun County, GA due to a competing store closing and a surge in direct mail campaigns. Keep your message clear, and then be sure your story stays focused on that overarching message. If you find yourself straying from your statement, your point may need to be refined, or you may need to consider telling another story.

2. Support Your Point

I like to call this the “who cares if you think I’m a crazy person” post-it strategy.

Storytelling post-its can help you sort out your ideas

Scribble down any points, sub-points, keywords, ideas, inklings, and drawings related to your point on some post-its. Lay them out on the table or floor so you can see all of them at once. Then, start to group them and re-group them until categories and themes begin to emerge. Finally, make sure your categories are essential to support your point. If they’re not, toss them out. The idea here is to whittle down your post-its and categories to succinctly and persuasively communicate your point.

Once you have some categories defined, use them to structure your story. Start with the introduction of your idea, and then walk your audience (don’t be shy – use your data visualizations here!) through the steps you took in your analysis to lead you to your point.

3. Plot Twist!

Surprise! Include a plot twist in your story. Or, at least, something to make your audience say “Huh.” A plot twist, or “inevitable surprise” in the creative writing world, makes your story more memorable. Your audience will walk away with a tidbit they’d like to share with a colleague, and that tidbit can help make your point a bit stickier. In the example above, the plot twist could be that a new competitor emerged in Baldwin County, Georgia, but we still saw higher than average sales.

Stupid kitties cat memeOr, for this blog post, it is both inevitable and only a tad surprising that I couldn’t resist a non-sequitur cat meme.

Your plot twist doesn’t need to be SHOCKING either (cough…Sixth Sense…cough). Sometimes the “why” behind your point is enough of a twist to make your story memorable.

4. Now What?

So you’ve stated your point, supported it with evidence, and surprised your audience with something to make your story memorable. Now what? Take advantage of your audience’s attention, and make a recommendation. Should we consider another direct mail campaign similar to the successful one we discussed today? Should we consider revising our sales forecasts?

If you aren’t comfortable making a specific recommendation, at least take this opportunity to suggest some next steps. Perhaps doing some further analysis to investigate the sales anomaly makes sense before making any drastic changes in strategy.

Give it a try!

Data storytelling can feel incredibly weird and unnatural at first, but I encourage you to stretch out of your comfort zone and give it a try on your next analytics project. Rather than delivering the same old dashboard or chart, start by stating your point, supporting it with those charts and graphs, surprising your audience with a little plot twist, and making a recommendation for where to go from here. Like any skill, it gets easier with practice. I bet you’ll be surprised with the engagement of your audience and with the change you can inspire. Happy Vizzing.

Watch Amanda Gessert talk about how she uses Story Points in Tableau to present interactive visualizations to customers in this Tableau video: