Let’s face it—not everyone is as data centric as you or I. I’ve met people who see a spreadsheet and die a little bit inside (maybe a slight over exaggeration, but you get what I mean). Maybe half of those people are key players who need to understand data, but despite their best efforts, just don’t. There’s no judgment here – it is not their fault.
Up until recently, data reporting has been fairly cut and dry (emphasis on the dry). Numbers were taken and entered into columns A, B, C, and D with the expectation that viewers would see those numbers and be able to make sense of what they meant. But here’s the thing: they were just numbers. Without any context behind those numbers, data doesn’t say anything. Which brings me to the very point of this post.
Breathing Life Into Big Data Through Storytelling
It may sound like an oxymoron, but data storytelling is a very real thing, and innovative organizations everywhere are using this framework and data visualization tools to share metrics with data-minds and non-data-minds alike. However, just like any good story, if you want your dashboard to be received well by your audience, it must include all the essential elements of a story.
Your data story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should include all the right details and be put into context. And its illustrations, though few, must be chosen with great care. By keeping in mind the following tips for storytelling with dashboards, you can tell a story not only worth publishing, but also one worth reading.
Use Only the Details That Matter
Information overload is a common pitfall with data reporting. Data analysts can feel that all numbers are important, wanting to include as much data and evidence as they have uncovered. While that’s not to say that all numbers are not important, there is a time and a place for each and every one.
Just as a clever author chooses which details to reveal and when, you should only call out metrics that contribute to the overall arc of your data story. If a metric or dashboard element doesn’t contribute to the larger narrative, scrap it. However, that doesn’t mean be stingy with detail either. Like in a great novel, details can provide a refreshing burst of color and insight. For instance, though an author doesn’t need to include every detail of the protagonist’s day, she should at least allow a glimpse into the character’s life outside of the plot, if only so we can get to know and understand her a little bit better.
Your data story should do the same—it should give life to your dashboard and allow your audience to glean insight into the underlying issues (or non-issues) that contribute to the data sets being highlighted.
In order for your audience to care about your data, you need to establish context. You must clarify why they should care, how points relate to each other, and how their actions (or inactions) will impact the company’s overall end goals.
Think about context in terms of storytelling. In order for the reader to understand and care about the story to come, the author must establish the setting, introduce the protagonist, share a little bit of background information, and lay out some key details. So must you do the same with your data story.
Context can help establish a relationship between your data and the audience. Once your audience becomes invested in your data on a deeper level, they will then be able to think in terms of the “bigger picture”—as in, “if I do this, then that will increase these metrics, but if I don’t do that, it may have a detrimental effect on those metrics.”
These connections, simple though they may be, help to drive informed decisions that take into account the long-term vision as opposed to the short-term buzz.
In addition to establishing connections between the data and the audience, context helps to establish connections between seemingly random data sets. If you were just to present two sets of numbers without giving them context, your audience might be confused, if not a little overwhelmed. However, when you provide a backstory for each set, they’ll be able to see the relationship and understand how each is affected by the other. This is important in helping your entire organization understand how each department directly affects the others, and how they can all work together to achieve a greater vision.
Read next: Data in Context
Illustrate Your Data
Once upon a time, data was just an endless stream of numbers, but then someone wised up and started introducing visuals in the form of charts and graphs into the mix. Data visualization software like iDashboards makes it easier for anyone to spice up the data storyboard with colorful charts and graphs, allowing for easier visualization and comprehension. You can completely customize the palette, background, and design of your dashboard to create a cohesive experience for your audience.
While visuals are important, you want to be smart about how you use them. More specifically, you want to be smart about the colors and shapes you use. When people see data, they quickly become overwhelmed, even if the numbers are presented in a pie chart or bar graph. Color helps break up huge chunks of information into digestible bites. Our blog post, Color Your Data, breaks down how to use color and shapes in detail, but some key points include:
- Use soft and contrasting colors, but avoid bright colors, as they hurt the eye.
- Use a color key! Failing to do so will just confuse the audience.
- Use a complementary color for text.
- Don’t use too many
Additionally, keep your visuals clean (no beveled graphics and fancy fonts, please!), and keep them flowing from left to right just as any other storybook would.
Finally, as with details, it’s important to not use too many illustrations, as doing so may cause information overload, thereby defeating the whole purpose of data visuals.
Once your story is complete, it’s time to publish it. Share your dashboards only with people who need to see it. Sharing it with too many people who do not understand the context behind the data may cause confusion and even create an unnecessary scare throughout the office. Fortunately, iDashboards offers password protection and the ability to share your data story with specific individuals throughout your organization who need to be in the know. User permissions are easy and intuitive to set up without bothering IT. Simply come up with a username and password, send the dashboard’s URL and login credentials to the relevant people.
If you do want to share your data story with the world, iDashboards allows you to do that as well with the Public Access license. Dashboards can be published as their own web pages, or be embedded into any existing web page for maximum impact and effect. For some inspiration, visit our live gallery of embedded dashboards.
Like a good story, data should be engaging, compelling, and inspire thoughts and action. Tools like iDashboards can help you create a compelling data story that engages the audience, gets them excited about “The Bigger Picture,” and drives informed decision making throughout your organization. This is the era of data storytelling, so get on board and breathe some life into your data.