Tell Me a Story, or Not

I began talking about finding and then telling the stories that reside in data 13 years ago, several years before “data storytelling” became a common expression and popular pursuit. Mostly, I was speaking of stories metaphorically. In some respects, I regret using this expression because, like many metaphors, its use has become overblown and misleading. I did not mean to suggest that stories literally reside in data, or, if I did, I was mistaken. Rather, facts reside in data from which stories can sometimes be woven. Literally speaking, storytelling involves a narrative presentation that consists of a beginning, middle, and end, along with characters, plots, and often dramatic tension. Data does not tell stories, people do.

Don’t be misled: data storytelling (i.e., the presentation of data in narrative form) makes up a tiny fraction of data visualization. The vast majority of data visualizations that we create present facts without weaving them into stories. Relatively few of the facts that we display in data visualizations lend themselves to storytelling. I’m not diminishing the usefulness of data storytelling, which can be incredibly powerful when appropriate and done well. I’m merely pointing out that data storytelling is not some new endeavor or skillset that dominates data visualization. It is a minor—but nonetheless important and useful—aspect of data visualization. Not everyone who works in the field of data visualization must be a skilled storyteller. In general, it’s more valuable to be skilled in data sensemaking and graphicacy, as well as a clear thinker and communicator, and to possess knowledge of the data domain.

When facts can indeed be woven into a story, however, do so if you know how. We love stories. They can breathe life into data. Just don’t try to impose a story on a set of facts to create life where it doesn’t exist.

Take care,

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3 Comments on “Tell Me a Story, or Not”


By Stew Sutton. February 6th, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Steve,

Excellent clarification between storytelling and data presentation and beautifully synchronized toward the classes we have been discussing on the subject.

At some level (within the hype cycle) it appears to have become fashionable to weave data visualizations into stories as a primary method of delivery.

As you point out, that forced fit quite often makes no sense, and the net result is of little use.

I have benefitted from the distinction you have clarified and I encourage you to keep relaying this message.

Thank you!

-Stew

By Stephen Few. February 8th, 2017 at 9:49 am

I just now read the sad news that Hans Rosling has died of pancreatic cancer. What a huge loss to the world. Hans was a master of data storytelling. With his animated bubble plots and other charts of various types, he told stories based on data. He told important stories and did so with exceptional skill. Hans was a consumate entertainer, but always in the service of important stories. I’ll miss him.

By jlbriggs. February 13th, 2017 at 7:41 am

This helps clear up some internal conflict I have had with the big push for story telling in data visualization.

Obviously sometimes there are stories to tell, and some people, like Hans, have done an amazing job of that.

In my experience at this point, more often than not in the modern Data Vis age, it’s an exercise in making dubious connections and conclusions, aka Making Shit Up.

Good first rule for data sensemaking: don’t make shit up.

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