Telling a Compelling Story with Data
Three Ways to Keep Your Audience Informed and Engaged
What is data storytelling? It is the “practice of building a narrative around a set of data and its accompanying visualizations to help convey the meaning of that data powerfully and compellingly.”
Why does it matter? Data can help us see patterns, influence how people perceive things, and help us make better decisions. However, the numbers alone aren’t meaningful and need to be put into context. Stories and storytelling can help the numbers and data make sense.
Often in a business setting and when giving a presentation, your goal is to convince your audience of something. Sometimes this has to be done in a short time, with important stakeholders (i.e., when the VP of the company decides to squeeze you in for a 15-minute meeting), so making the presentation engaging and persuasive is crucial.
Business presentations are not about building suspense, and most audiences want to know your view right away (executive summaries work well for this). Using data can be very helpful in a presentation, as it can help support or defend your decision.
However, when some presenters include data, they lose sight of their story, which makes their presentations less persuasive. Why?
Because instead of focusing on the objective data, they focus more on showing off their technical know-how and want to show the audience the process they used to work with the data and how comprehensive they were in their analysis.
Below are steps you can follow to help you avoid this pitfall and give a compelling presentation with data.
Step 1, to tell a compelling story with data is to educate yourself on what a compelling story looks like. Read books or watch presentations where people use data to make their points and find out what you like and what works well.
Step 2 is to know your audience: Who is your audience? What are their goals? What is the key decision(s) that need to be made? What is the data that will matter to them? Remember to keep the presentation relevant to your audience. If your audience is not experts, use plain language to keep everyone engaged. Create a compelling story that fits your audience’s current level of knowledge and helps them reach their goals.
Step 3 is the fun part! You get to find the story in the data, a story that has a clear narrative, appeals to emotion, stays true to the data, and is relevant to your audience.
A few options for story structure include:
Chronological Structure: With this storytelling structure, you present the data in order, with the process it took you to arrive at your business conclusions step by step. This structure is great to get your audience up to speed if they have not been a part of the research from the beginning. However, if you choose to go this route, remember that the presentation still needs to be engaging and doesn’t need to include analyses that didn’t work.
Pro/Con Structure: This structure works well when there are two or more quality solutions to consider for the business problem and allows you to present both sides. This pro/con structure is also a good method if your audience is split on what the best decision may be.
With this structure, you start by giving context to the situation and framing the problem. Then, begin exploring the possible solutions with your audience, laying out the pros and cons of each and using data to strengthen your claims. While this is a good story structure to use, keep in mind that your audience probably wants you to have a point of view of which solution is best.
Classic Story Structure: With this structure, you begin by providing context around the situation and the key players. Then dive into the problem or complication. Finally, share your solution to the problem with key insights and actionable steps for moving forward.
The solution is where you should spend the most time and present data that supports your decision. Not only is this structure engaging, but it helps you advocate for a certain solution or outcome. One downside of this structure is that it may sometimes feel “not scientific enough,” but that is not always a bad thing. In the end, persuasive business presentations are about who can tell the most compelling story and present the best outcome or solution to a problem.
As you begin to craft your data story, remember to think about how you can best share the data in an engaging and digestible way for your audience.
You may want to think about adding visuals. Visuals, whether they be graphs, photos, or charts of the data, are great! Just make sure they are intentional and help your audience easily understand what the data is saying.
Throughout the entire data storytelling process, the most important thing to remember is, to be honest.
While most audiences want you to have a clear viewpoint, stay true to the data, and tell the whole story. Sharing the objective data will not only allow you to maintain your scientific integrity but allow your audience to make the most informed decisions.
Arin Chapman, Market Research and Insights Associate