7 tips for better data-driven stories

Ask ‘So what?’ Illustrate trends with customers or employees. Find mini-stories in annual reports. Numbers-heavy stories needn’t be a snooze.


Numbers stories can be intimidating for those of us without a background in statistics or mathematics.

Yet we lowly English majors, along with people trained in journalism and communication, do have one advantage over the number-crunchers: We know how to tell stories.

The question is how to use data in a meaningful way that advances your narrative.

“If you don’t know why you’re sharing a piece of data or what it means in the larger scheme of the argument you are trying to make, it’s not very useful,” says Amy Loomis, co-founder and former program director of IBM Think Academy.

Here are some tips for building better number-heavy stories:

1. Ask ‘So what?’ when creating stories, videos or infographics.

Another way to put it, Loomis says, is to ask, “Why would someone want to know this? How does it help them make a decision or think about the opportunity or challenge at hand?”

If you can’t answer that, your data probably aren’t very useful.

To address the “so what?” issue in preparing infographics, Bob Zeni of Bob Zeni & Associates and Ragan Consulting Group says you must answer four questions:

  • How does it align with your goals? If you don’t know that, don’t waste your time cranking out content stuffed with random numbers.
  • Who’s your audience? When you’re communicating with specialists, Zeni says, use “a detailed, data-heavy text; formal, austere design; and minimal, subtle colors.”

For a general audience, stick with short, informal text. You should use bright primary colors and simple, direct visuals.

  • What’s your purpose? Is it to persuade? If so, make an emotional appeal; a call to action is crucial, Zeni says.

Or is your purpose to inform and educate? Then emphasize facts, make an intellectual appeal, and offer a rational argument.

  • What’s the primary use? Will it be printed or distributed digitally?

2. Construct smarter infographics.

Many infographics are simply dreadful, but they can be great tools when you take an editorial approach, Zeni says. Weave the elements of a graphic together in a narrative to tell a story:

  • Text. Use explanatory captions, he says. Write declarative sentences. Create context and connect the elements of your infographics. And thereby lead the reader to your conclusion.
  • Images. Photographs, icons, charts and maps must be a part of your story structure.
  • Data visualizations include pie charts, bar charts, line graphs and matrixes (such as a field of tiny, identical human figures, with a certain percentage of them in a different color to represent a statistic).

3. Illustrate trends with human stories.

Stories about people are often an effective way to lead into a broader report or illustrate a company initiative, such as a Microsoft Hackathon.

“Telling the stories of the ways in which we are providing value for customers … helps the audience to see the ‘why’ of what we do every day,” says Tracey Grove, director of communications for inside sales at Microsoft. “The numbers are then just additional evidence of progress for the business.”

Newspapers and newscasts often use individuals to illustrate a broader point in political stories. When a survey highlighted working-class support for then-candidate Donald Trump in Michigan in 2016, journalists might have interviewed an automobile worker. Did Hillary Clinton lock in young professionals in Virginia? The story could lead with a voter who embodies that trend.

Years ago, when I used to freelance for The New York Times from the Russian Far East, I interviewed voters for a 2000 election story bylined by Michael Wines. He led with a Putin voter I had interviewed on a train to Ulan Bator:

They don’t make them much tougher than Siberian bulldozer operators, and so it follows that Roman Khasanov, a 30-year-old excavator from the flat, treeless permafrost of Yakutia, has little use for politicians who feel people’s pain. By his way of thinking, it was Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his squishy notions of perestroika and glasnost—restructuring and openness—that brought Russia to ruination in the first place.

Khasanov helped illustrate the issue of why a majority of Russians supported a former KGB colonel as their president.

4. Break up number-heavy reports with mini-stories.

Loomis highlights annual reports as often-overlooked opportunities for better data-driven stories. Rather than a dreary recitation of statistics, IBM’s 2017 annual report is a colorful document that opens with mini-stories about customers and employees.

The report features an IBM employee who graduated from the company’s P‑TECH, a six-year high school and community college program that enables students to earn an associate degree and models a new kind of education, IBM says.

The report highlights the way IBM works in the real world. It notes that South Africa’s Welgevonden Game Reserve uses the Internet of Things and predictive analytics to track animal movements and protect endangered rhinos. The Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, is digitizing with artificial intelligence to maximize cargo loads and speed shipping traffic, IBM notes.

5. Bolster research stories with key numbers.

It doesn’t just start with numbers. Sometimes you can work in the other direction—finding numbers that demonstrate the relevance of research or that show an issue to be of wider significance.

When telling stories about research outcomes or procedures, or when writing the annual report, Hamilton Health Sciences uses understandable numbers about people who add credibility to the story, says Scott Levely, digital communications lead. In one example, titled “This discovery will save lives after surgery,” Hamilton describes a study of 1,754 patients in 19 countries that led to a breakthrough in treating heart attack and stroke patients.

Sometimes it’s not enough to tell a narrative only about a particular subject, he says. If communicators emphasize the overall impact, the audience can see the larger picture.

“This may be the number of people affected by a condition, or the number of people benefiting from a new procedure or program we offer,” Levely he says. “If we can do that, there’s much greater possibility of empathy from our audience, connecting them to our material in a much deeper way.”

6. Hold high standards when using numbers.

Often executives get a bee in their bonnet about one particular data point that is interesting but a bit off-topic, Loomis says. Make sure you are working from real conclusions and not just hyping a fact because your chief marketing officer thinks it’s useful.

7. Mine data in unlikely places.

You don’t need a professional pollster to gather internal or external data. Look for it in places such as job interviews. Social media might seem like a string of statements, impossible to crunch in a number format, but Twitter or Facebook can yield useful data.

During Hurricane Sandy, a New Jersey water authority used Twitter as a primary means of communication because the power was down, Loomis said. The Twitter account offered information to make sure people were safe, warned about hazards and informed about shelters.

Later, the organization used data from Twitter to determine what messaging was effective, and to dig into ways it had built relationships with other organizations, Loomis said. The conclusions that emerged became part of a rebranding effort that better defined the authority’s goal as a community organization concerned about the environment and climate change.

“The data they got in an emergency management situation,” Loomis says, “wound up being used and consumed long after it was relevant in that context to build a whole new program around social and community engagement.”

@byworking

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