ADVICE, EXPERIMENTS AND THING'S WE'VE FOUND INTERESTING IN THE WORLD OF DATA STORYTELLING AND VISUALISATION
ADVICE, EXPERIMENTS AND THING'S WE'VE FOUND INTERESTING IN THE WORLD OF DATA STORYTELLING AND VISUALISATION
Near/Far reporting is a technique that allows one to explore both the intimate and the broader story of our data. It involves moving between a micro view of the data and the macro view of the data to create a relevant and holistic story that has the power to both engage and educate.
As the above graphic suggests, the near view allows us to 'zoom in' and see how our data affects us as an individual.
Whereas the far view allows us to 'zoom out' and see how our data affects everyone else, providing context and perspective to the near view, as well as the larger social and financial implications of our story.
With careful consideration to the ordering and interaction between the two levels of narrative, near/far reporting can be a powerful technique within data storytelling.
Data statistics on the current Covid-19 pandemic are a great example of near/far data reporting in practice.
As an individual I want to know the latest statistics in my area and how they might affect me and my family. 'Selfishly' this is what I need to know, as it is going to have an immediate impact on my everyday life and potentially my health. This is known as the 'near view' - how the data affects me as an individual. From the UK government Covid-19 statistics website I am able to view a map of the UK and search directly for my postcode so I can see the current number of cases reported in my local geographic region:
Number of positive Covid-19 cases for Winchester-West - Gov.uk
But I also want to know the wider context, and how the virus is being managed and reported on nationwide. I have questions about how are cases growing or declining, are we doing more tests, are deaths on the increase etc. The same website allows me to do this to see these 'zoomed-out' macro trends:
UK-wide statistics on Covid-19 - Gov.uk
Being able to switch between these two views (the near and the far) gives me that personal and holistic view that demonstrates the full data story.
Here we have looked at interactive storytelling - the data is provisioned to me on a website where I am free to move around and view what interests me and search for the data that is relevant to me.
But it's not just in interactive dashboard style storytelling where near/far reporting can be applied. In more traditional data journalism, this technique has been used for years where a larger narrative article might be headed by an anecdotal story or quote about an individual, before then reaching back up to the story at large.
Or in a PowerPoint style insight presentation, we have the opportunity to talk about a particular user experience and how it might be going wrong for one customer in detail (so we create empathy and understanding on a more human level), and then we rise up and see for how many customers it is going wrong for, to help understand the financial implications of this poor experience.
Or we might talk about macro trends in the marketplace and how they might be affecting customer behaviour, before then 'zooming in' to talk about how this might affect our business and our growth plans.
There are lots of opportunities to be creative with this technique and it is a great way of telling more effective, personal and broad stories with our data. Because remember, data and statistics can only take us so far in creating engaging and emotional data stories - we need to find the small and human stories as well, as this is where the power of data storytelling really takes off.
A neat reference guide from the FT that can help you decide on the most appropriate visualisation for your data story. Download the full version here.
Tell me. Does this 4 word statement sound familiar?
“So, what’s the story?”
Picture the scenario….you’ve finished pulling together your latest presentation and your boss looms over you (or as much as they can in today’s virtual world) and after flicking through your deck they utter those four words:
“So, what’s the story?”
Or perhaps you’re the boss and you’re looking at an apparent jumble of charts from one of your team, struggling to find the connection or the importance and you lean back on those four wonderful words:
“So, what’s the story?”
Or you’re a stakeholder and your agency have turned up with a laborious deck of over 50 slides full of relevant but heavy statistics. Frustrated, you reach into your arsenal of ‘work speak’ and all you can come up with is:
“So, what’s the story?”
What do we mean when we say or hear these words? After all, what is a story anyway and why are constantly reaching for it in work? Surely we have enough of stories in our lives anyway with all those books, Netflix series and anecdotes at the pub…sorry, at the zoom pub quizzes.
It turns out, no we haven’t. As humans we love the stuff, but when we say story in work, often we’re simply asking “so, what’s the point?” or “so, what are you trying to say?”.
To me, this is an important, but perhaps just functional way of looking at things. We’re effectively asking can you demonstrate better focus or structure in your work that allows me to get the key message sooner.
But is there more?
If we are to look at the full definition of what makes a story, we find there is a lot more than just form and focus:
When we choose what tv programme to watch, what book to read, what video game to play, we want more than just structure. We want entertainment, challenge, tension, thrills and excitement. We want to learn, expand our horizons and find new ways to look at the world. We want all the aspects of what defines a story.
So when we ask “So, what’s the story”, could we actually be asking for more. Yes, we are asking for focus and structure, but could we also be asking “where’s the tension in your presentation”, “what is going to keep our audience interested” or “how are we going to connect with our stakeholders through our work”?
Storytelling, and specially Data Storytelling, continues to be a key area of interest within the businesses I work with because it offers the opportunity to find simplicity in the complex. It offers the opportunity to find the interest in what some can deem mundane. It offers the opportunity to express creativity and magic that brings out the emotion in our audiences and gets them on the edge of their seats.
It’s an important skill and in our ever changing, ever more complex and ever more data centric world, it is becoming ever more important.
So the next time you hear or ask “So, what is the story”, challenge yourself on making sure you are delivering against the full definition of the word…because if you do you have the power to inspire, inform and entertain your audience with the true potential of your work.
At Finding Stories we are passionate about Data Storytelling and its power to help bridge the gap between those that create insights and those that consume insights.
By bridging this gap we create understanding, engagement and, ultimately, value.
If you would like to hear more about our training courses, how we could work together on a more bespoke development programme, or if you need support with key presentations or visualisations then please get in contact and I would love to have a discussion with you.
As per the visual above, ask yourself where do you, your team and your stakeholders sit and challenge yourselves what can you do to ensure you end up in the ‘zone of value’, as opposed to the ‘zone of frustration’.
If you’re a creator of insight, are you doing all you can to ensure your communication is simple, relevant and focussed towards your audience and their problems to support those with lower levels of data literacy? And are you doing all you can to ensure you are building relationships and displaying empathy towards your stakeholders to understand their world and how your data and techniques can support them?
If you are a consumer of insight, are you doing all you can to most effectively brief your data science team on your requirements and why you need their support, giving them the context to help them succeed? And are you doing all you can to ensure you build your own confidence and familiarity with the inputs, outputs and opportunity that your data brings so you can continue to brief better and realise the value of your data science department?
As the previously mentioned article from HBR on Data Literacy says, “We are in a golden era of data”. It’s important we don’t let it pass us by.
Data continues to get bigger, the techniques to analyse it more sophisticated and it continues to grow in importance in our everyday lives. For those of us in data centric roles, we love it. It’s exciting.
But for a lot of our audience, the consumers of our data and insight, that love and excitement might not exist. Lots of people can find data daunting, abstract and even uninteresting and we need to be respectful of that. Data storytelling is an approach that can help bridge the gap between those that create insights and those that consume insights. By bridging this gap we create understanding, engagement and, ultimately, value.
So if we go along with the idea that Data Storytelling is the key for unlocking the value of our work, why isn't everyone doing it? What typically tends to happen when a data advocate comes to talk about their work?
When a data lover comes to talk about data, what we can often find is that their talks can be:
- Overly complex,
- And lacking in focus.
“I’ve got so much to say so you sit there and listen to it all”.
This is a problem because:
- Our brains in general don’t like numbers, so can struggle to connect.
- Long and hard to follow talks or documents can quickly lead to disengagement.
Disengagement then leads to apathy, indecision and disinterest, which leads in turn to missed opportunities.
I have sat through (and to be fair have delivered) presentations that are tens and tens of slides of charts that leave people bored and reaching for their phones.
So we have to find a way to do things differently. Step in Data Storytelling.
In my course I teach that to be good at data storytelling you need to do three key things:
1. You need to storyboard, to ensure focus and structure to your presentation. A talk that has focus and structure is easier to follow and helps audience engagement. It also helps challenge our urges to show everything we know and instead focus on what does our audience need to know.
2. You need to focus on elevating your content to create engagement. Elevation comes from creating exciting, memorable, tension rich experiences that engage your audience and make them sit up and take notice.
3. You need an ending that is action orientated and helps audiences make decisions and makes change happen.
My course on data storytelling is a course focussed on taking a different approach to writing presentations and telling data stories that ensure you stand out and make a difference.
The course is designed to be informative, genuinely enjoyable and a chance for people to take a look at themselves and how to do things differently.
If you want to proactively bridge the gap between the creators of insight and consumers of insight, please do get in touch or find more details on my course here.
You can also download the course brochure by following this link:
For today’s short story visualisation, I decided to focus on the news that the Coronavirus isolation period was set to increase from 7 to 10 days. The simplest way to show this would be to use a bar chart with two bars - a before bar showing 7 and an after bar showing 10. I love a simple visualisation but I wanted to find something equally simple but a bit more pleasurable to look at.
My initial idea was to do something with a circle, analogous to a clock given we’re talking about time. I spent around 30 minutes mulling over different ideas in my head and searching for inspiration online. I had an idea but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. So rather than spend more time thinking, or settle for something I wasn’t happy with, instead I decided to walk away.
Walking away from a problem isn’t always the best advice, but I find when struggling for inspiration when creating a data visualisation, or presentation, going to do something else and letting your subconscious brain churn away at it instead can work wonders and it means that when you’re ready to return to it, invariably new ideas will crop up.
How long should you walk away? I think it depends. Sometimes just 15 minutes will do, other times it might be a whole day or week. Today, for me, it was 15 minutes. I put my laptop down and went to talk to my family about other things. And when I then returned to my laptop, I suddenly had the realisation that for this visualisation I wasn’t talking about time as in hours (which the clock analogy works for), I instead was talking about days, and therefore I needed a calendar analogy. I pictured someone in isolation looking at their calendar and counting down the days until they could go out again. And that’s how I ended up with today’s visualisation.
It's still a simple visualisation, but an effective one to demonstrate the truth and growth in my data story.
For more of my growing collection of short stories, click here.
For most people that work in data, they will have come across the term chart clutter or chart junk. These are elements included in a visualisation that distract, rather than educate. They could be repeated data labels, grid lines that aren’t needed or plot borders that add little to understanding. Too many of these elements increase cognitive load on the intended audience and make things harder to understand and less pleasurable to read.
Defining chart clutter is important as you want to remove distractions that, well, distract your audience...but you don’t want to remove elements that help your reader understand how to interpret your visualisation.
To help, here is a definition from the book ‘Storytelling with Data’ that I think sums it up clearly and is a question you can ask again and again when deciding what to include or remove:
“Chart Clutter are visual elements that take up space but don’t increase understanding”
Data Visualisation and Data Storytelling are all about following key principles and then practice, practice, practice. In a previous post I talked about Makeover Mondays, an initiative to get you into the habit of critiquing and then refreshing a past visualisation.
Another way in which I am now looking to continue to test myself in my own data storytelling and data visualisation practice, is to introduce Short Stories. These will be a quick and concise data visualisations, shared in a standard form that presents a story from the news in that day. By adding the constraint of a set format and bold style, I hope to test my own imagination on how to tell simple but effective stories. Here are my first two from this week:
For my first #MondayMakeover, I initially struggled to find the story. Here was a dataset about three different species of penguins, comparing the relationship between Flipper Length and Bill Length.
It was clear that there is a relationship between the two measurements, but the correlation wasn't interesting to me....I had to find a different angle.
A quick bit of googling and I found the story. Adelie penguins are native (and have been for a long time) to the Palmer Peninsular in Antarctica. The Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins however are newcomers to the region. Furthermore, the Adelie penguins are on a sharp decline. In any society where two species contest the same food source, trouble is going to take place. Therefore the introduction of the different species and consequences based on their relative size looked to be the story for me.
Therefore for my visualisation I took the following design decisions:
1. Share the backstory in fairly detailed prose to educate the reader.
2. Choose a colour scheme that matched to images I found from the region.
3. Simplify the data by only showing the average sizes of the three species - I like showing individual data points but they are not needed to support my story.
4. I chose to select a blue colour for my Adelie penguin bars (no pun intended!) that matched the colour I used for my Antarctica image to demonstrate they were native to the area.
Here's my final image. Let me know what you think and does it make for a more interesting and insightful visualisation than the original?
To improve at Data Visualisation, its important we do two things:
1. We Find Inspiration from Others;
2. We Practice and Seek Feedback.
(It's also important that we critique but I will leave that for another post).
There is so much good work and innovation at the moment in the field of data visualisation and one group that look to support that are the good folks at #MakeoverMonday.
The team at Makeover Monday publish a new dataset and visualisation each Sunday and then invite people from the data visualisation community (you and me) to take a go at redesigning the visualisation to tell your own story and give your own perspective. By sharing your visualisation on a platform like Twitter, it then gives others the opportunity to comment and feedback to help you hone your visualisation.
I've only recently discovered this initiative but there are datasets going all the way back to 2016 and the team's favourite makeovers associated with them. By providing this service, the team at Makeover Monday have created the perfect platform for finding inspirations from others, practicing on a weekly basis and getting into the habit of giving and receiving feedback so we can all continue to learn and develop.
If you're serious about improving your data visualisation capabilities and design, here is the perfect opportunity and community to do that with.