Data storytelling: 5 best practices
Learn how to hone both your verbal and written communication skills to make your insights memorable and encourage decision-makers to revisit your research.
You’ve spent months collecting data with your insights team or research vendors, and you’ve compiled your research into a presentation that you think is going to blow your audience away. But what happens after you’ve finished presenting? Do your stakeholders act on the insights you’ve shared, or do they move on to their next meeting and quickly forget your key takeaways and recommendations?
If you want to avoid the latter, it’s important to consider how you can make the biggest possible impact while presenting and also encourage your stakeholders to revisit your research after the fact. And that requires you to hone both your verbal and written communication skills.
In other words: practice your storytelling.
Research shows that combining statistics with storytelling results in a retention rate of 65-70%. So, how do you take advantage of this fact when presenting and documenting your insights?
Below are five best practices to help you present insights through stories – and encourage your stakeholders to revisit those stories as they make business decisions.
Tailor the message to your audience
To maximize the impact of your story, you have to consider who’s hearing it.
When you’re presenting to someone in finance, try to cover how your findings can help the company save money. When you’re talking to Marketing or Sales, explain how the information can drive new leads and close more deals. When you’re talking to the product development team, explain how they can deliver a better solution.
The more you can address your audience’s concerns in the language they use and the context they understand, the bigger the impact your story will have.
- How much does my audience already know about the subject I’m covering?
- How much time do they have to listen to what I’m saying?
- What are their primary concerns?
- What type of language do they use to communicate?
- Are there preconceptions I need to address?
If your insights are applicable to multiple groups across the organization, it’s worth thinking about how you can tweak the story for each audience. This could mean writing different sets of key takeaways and implications for different groups or altering the examples you use to better align with each audience’s interests.
Follow the structure of a story
While stories come in various shapes, sizes, tones, and genres, they all have a few things in common – one of those being a similar structure.
Think about how a movie is typically divided into three acts. Those acts follow this general structure:
- Setup: We’re introduced to the protagonist, and they experience some kind of inciting incident (i.e., the introduction of conflict or tension) that propels the story forward.
- Confrontation: The protagonist works to achieve a goal but encounters obstacles along the way.
- Resolution: The protagonist reaches the height of their conflict with an antagonist and achieves some kind of outcome (whether it’s the protagonist’s desired outcome or not will depend on the type of story).
Here’s a (fictional) example of an insights-driven story that follows this structure:
- The insights team for a beverage company shares a recorded interview with a real customer, who we’ll call Raquel. Raquel talks about how she loves getting together for backyard barbecues with friends. She says that she used to always drink beer at these barbecues but has recently decided to stop drinking.
- Raquel goes on to say that she doesn’t really like soda because she thinks it’s too sweet, but she will often pick one up at barbecues because she wants to have a drink in her hand.
- After playing this interview, the insights team presents findings from their latest study into young women’s non-alcoholic beverage preferences. They use Raquel’s story to emphasize trends they are seeing for canned beverages with lower sugar or sweetener contents.
By framing your data and reports in this narrative structure, you’re more likely to keep your audience interested, make your findings memorable, and emphasize how your findings relate to real customers or consumers. This is a great way to get business decision-makers to invest in and act on your insights.
Put your editor’s hat on
When you have managed or been directly involved with a research project, it can be tempting to include every fascinating detail in your presentation. However, if you throw extraneous information into your data story, you’ll quickly lose your audience. It’s important to put yourself in the mindset of your audience and ruthlessly edit your story down to its essential ingredients.
According to Cinny Little, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, you should focus on answering the audience’s two primary questions: “What’s in it for me?” and “Why do I need to care?”
You should also keep your editor’s hat on when documenting your key recommendations or takeaways for a report. Studies show that people can only hold about four items in their conscious mind, or working memory, at any one time. If you include more than three or four recommendations, your audience will have a harder time retaining the most important information.
Find your hook
When presenting, don’t think you can start slow and build up excitement – research suggests you only have about 30 to 60 seconds to capture your audience’s attention. After that, you’ve lost them.
And getting them back won’t be easy.
That’s why you need a hook – a way to start your story that’s so engaging and compelling your audience can’t help but listen.
According to Matthew Luhn, a writer, story consultant, and speaker who has experience working with Pixar, The Simpsons, and more, a compelling hook is at least one of the following:
- Driven by conflict
When sharing your research, you could hook your audience by leading with a finding that goes against prevailing assumptions, or a specific example of a customer struggling with a problem that your product could solve. Find a hook that evokes a strong emotion so that your story will stick with listeners and drive them to make decisions.
Experiment with your story medium
If you present your research to a room (or Zoom meeting) full of stakeholders once and then move on, you’re limiting the reach, lifespan, and value of that research. At a time when so many teams have become decentralized and remote work is common, it’s more important than ever to preserve your data stories and make them accessible to your stakeholders on demand.
At the most basic level, this could mean uploading your presentation decks to an insights management platform so that your stakeholders and team members can look them up whenever they want. However, it’s also worth thinking about other mediums you can translate your stories into. For example, you might publish infographics, video clips from customer interviews, or animated data visualizations alongside your reports. Think about the supporting materials you can include to bring the story to life for anyone who wasn’t in the room for the initial presentation.
By applying the best practices above, you can take the data and reports that others often find dry (no matter how much you disagree) and turn them into compelling, engaging, and persuasive stories.
This process of developing and distributing insights stories will enable you and your team to have a more strategic impact on your company as a whole by demonstrating the potential outcomes of making decisions based on research.
Author: Madeline Jacobson