disruptive

What is Data Storytelling and How to Master It

Analytics

Digital Marketing Metrics

Marketing

Strategy

Ana Gotter

August 2, 2022

We’re a data-driven agency, so a bunch of metrics compiled into a report is interesting and exciting to us.

We’ve realized, however, that that’s not the case for most of our clients or for most people in general.

Most people see a block of numbers and data and ask one question: So what does it mean? 

Even with impressive statistics like 50% growth or 120%  ROI, numbers are just numbers; analyzing and understanding them can be difficult, and finding them meaningful— even more so.

That’s why data storytelling is so useful in many cases, both for internal and external uses. 

And in this post, we’re going to go over what data storytelling is, why it matters, and how to use it to create rich interpretations of your data that people will remember, understand, and know how to act on. 

What is Data Storytelling? 

Data storytelling is the practice of combining data, a story-based narrative, and potentially visualization to create a single “reporting experience” that will resonate with others. 

Data is the hard numbers and specific metrics. This can include first-party and third-party data, but it often focuses around first-party performance metrics data.

A narrative is what creates the story. You introduce characters (real or fake), set up a conflict and resolution with data, and add the “why” to fill in the blanks. This makes the data interesting, easier to understand, and more emotionally impactful for whoever hears it. 

It’s why you don’t just say “our home security system stopped 85% of home break ins last year.” 

You talk about Suzie and her family, who were home asleep with two toddlers, when armed men broke into their home but were scared away by the blaring alarm system and were caught an hour later thanks to the video cameras. No one was hurt, nothing was taken, and everyone is ok. 

Visualization will include the actual visuals you use in your report. This can include graphs and lists of the metrics in question; in some cases, it will also highlight key “story” aspects or graphic elements to strengthen the story. 

Together, they create a single powerful experience that’s highly memorable.  

Why Data Storytelling is so Powerful 

We mentioned this in the introduction: Unfortunately, without some sort of basic story attached, data can be boring

It also may be difficult for non-data specialists to understand.

As a marketing agency, for example, we may take a laundry list of metrics to our clients to report back. If they don’t have a lot of technical experience and industry knowledge, this can be overwhelming and ultimately may not tell them as much.

This is also true when we’re talking about general performance or case studies during initial clent pitches. Anyone who may not understand the technical aspects of what you’re doing (whether it’s internal team members or external clients) can feel lost with a page full of numbers. 

Data storytelling, however, takes real, quantifiable data and makes it interesting and  understandable. It’s memorable and it can leave an emotional impact, because an engaging story is attached. 

This, in turn, will actually make the data more actionable because it’s easier to understand, more persuasive, and easier to see where to go next. 

How to Create Compelling Data Storytelling Narratives  

Want to know how to create a strong, engaging narrative for your data?

The good news is that with the right process and a little creativity, it’s actually fairly straightforward and easy to do! When in question, partner up with a writer that’s already on your team— they’ll help sell it! 

Let’s go step by step through the process.  

Start With High Quality Data 

Start with the highest quality data that you can source. First party data is always best, but third-party data can help fill in the blanks— even if it’s just for storytelling purposes. 

Know where you got it from, and be clear about what it means. The story will lose all impact if your interpretation of the data isn’t right on the money and someone else figures that out. 

Example: 

Your data tells you that:

  • 95% of home owners struggle to keep their lawn alive and healthy during the summer months 
  • 15% struggle with drought, 30% struggle with weeds, and 45% struggle with pests that mow down the grass 
  • 70% of your customers have received HOA notices because of their lawn
  • 50% have resodded their lawn at least once because of these issues, but 60% say they can’t afford to do so or are unwilling to do so now
  • 98% of our customers hire us year-over-year, citing healthier lawns year round without worrying about the cost of replacing sod or HOA complaints 

Find a Challenge 

Ideally, your data story is going to take either one of two paths:

  • You “start” somewhere (like low performance in your sales department, for example) and “end” somewhere else (high performance in the sales department)
  • You tell a story about a specific set of statistics, showing how your product or tool resolved a challenge with a strong solution. 

Think about the “obstacle” or the “challenge” that your clients face, and make it feel realistic and specific. How can your product help find a solution? 

Example: 

The challenge is that your customers are struggling to keep their lawns alive, resulting in destroyed lawns due to a variety of reasons. They’re receiving HOA notices and fines, and can’t afford to resod again. The stakes are high— and expensive. 

Craft Characters 

Next, you need to make the story feel real. Statistics are one thing, but a real person with a real story (even if they’re a fake character) is what sticks out and drives people to act. 

You can use real life clients as an example, or create new characters that are designed to appeal to whoever it is that you’re presenting the data to.

They should be relatable to your target audience, with clear pain points, motivations, and needs. 

Example: 

  • You create Ron, who is a married, 35-year old father of two. They live in the suburbs in Florida, where the HOA can be particularly pesky. 
  • Ron is proud of his home— he and his wife worked so hard to get it— and wants it to look wonderful, but despite watering regularly (and even having an irrigation system installed!), his lawn is still dying. 
  • He can’t figure out why, he’s getting notices from the HOA, but with two kids the budget is too tight to shell out 2k on a new lawn every spring. He’s at a loss for how to save his grass, and is endlessly frustrated. 

Craft the Narrative Around Conflict & Resolution That Prioritizes Action 

So far, we’ve got the data, the challenge, and a strong character story that highlights a real, relatable pain point and specific needs that the customer has (help with lack of knowledge, struggles with cost). 

The last step is to finalize the narrative, focusing on the conflict initially (which we’ve done so far) and then ending with a data-filled resolution that prioritizes action. End with a call-to-action (CTA) if appealing to customers. 

Example: 

  • Like Ron, 95% of home owners struggle to keep their lawn alive and healthy during the summer months. 70% of customers have also received HOA notices, and 50% have had to resod at least once— but 60% either can’t afford to do so again, or unwilling to do so. And while Ron has been watering regularly, only 15% of home owners struggle with lawn health because of lack of water. 30% struggle with weed control, and 45% struggle with those hard-to-see pests that mow down the grass when you’re not looking. 
  • That’s why so many customers come to our lawn and pest control service. We specialize in all those issues you can’t control yourself, like knowing how to knock out unwanted weeds before they tear up your lawn or how to identify pests before they consume it. We’ll come every month for inspection and treatment, and if we can’t save your lawn, we’ll replace it ourselves at no risk to you.
  • 98% of our customers like Ron have hired us year-over-year, having healthier lawns they can be proud of without worrying about the high costs of sod replacement or HOA complaints.
  • Interested in saving your lawn from imminent doom? Book a free consult today. 

Final Thoughts 

A data-heavy story is one of the best ways to sell to users at any stage of the buying process, even if it’s just to recap the results and how they’re indicators of success.

This all comes down to understanding your audience and knowing what they need to hear and when. Which is, of course, at the center of every sales and marketing campaign. This is no different.
Looking for new ways to step up your marketing or sales game? Check out our blog to learn all the latest and greatest tips in the industry!

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