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Data-driven storytelling: How to turn insights into compelling narratives

At a glance

  • Data-driven storytelling helps you turn complex data into a compelling and comprehensible story. This allows stakeholders to make informed decisions.
  • To boost your storytelling with data, it’s important to understand the audience’s needs, humanize the data and use easy-to-understand visualizations.
  • Harnessing the power of emotion in storytelling amplifies data’s impact and can help drive your audience to action.
  • With a Bachelor of Science degree in Business with a Business Analytics Certificate from UOPX, you can learn to use data visualization to enhance data storytelling to drive business decisions.

Writing for a crowd

Back when I was an auditor, I dealt with a lot of data. But data is only as useful as you make it, and when it came time for the decision-makers in my organization to strategize for the future, they needed to know what all that sample testing meant.

That’s where I came in. I had to interpret the data and communicate it in a way that was coherent and accurate — and engaging.   

This is data storytelling in a nutshell. You take a puzzle box full of data, analyze it and turn it into a visualization that makes sense to the reader or audience.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of data-driven storytelling, and how you can use it.

Learn in-demand business skills with a Bachelor of Science in Business. 

What is data storytelling?

Data storytelling allows you to take information with zero context behind it and turn it into something meaningful. The data may reveal trends in customer perception, problems with distribution or opportunities for growth. Whatever the data points pertain to, you use them to create a story that others can understand.

Supporting the data with different visual elements — like graphs or dashboards — provides a framework for your data visualization and enhances its resonance with your audience. Our brains love stories, after all. Creating a compelling one is a way to engage your audience of stakeholders and help them arrive at important and accurate conclusions.

What are the key principles for effective data storytelling?

We now understand the basics behind data-driven storytelling, but how do we implement it? Here are four key principles to keep in mind.

1. Understand your audience

No matter what you’re communicating, you need to understand the people you’re speaking to. 

Trust me, it matters. You don’t want to provide high-level data when you need to do a deep dive. The same goes the other way. Getting into the details when an overview is required just leaves the audience confused and frustrated.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who am I speaking to? What’s their position? Are they inside or outside of my organization?
  • What am I allowed to share? What’s considered public domain versus proprietary intellectual property or personal data?
  • Am I using the data ethically? Was this data intended for the way I’m using it?
  • Is the data representative? Am I correctly interpreting it and accurately sharing it?
  • Why do they need to know what I’m telling them? Will they use it to make key decisions, or is it for general knowledge?
  • How much detail do they need? Would a simple overview suffice?

2. Humanize the data

You don’t want to sound robotic when you’re writing or communicating about data points. Your audience — no matter who they are — will tune you out.

Instead, be a human being. (It’s just one advantage over AI!) Offer a real-life example or anecdote

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Let’s say you have an audience interested in building a side income in addition to their full-time job. In this example, you could say, “40% of adults want to make $25,000 per year in a side business.” 

That’s not much to go on, but it could be interesting. Let’s provide more context to make it relatable. Rather than that general statement, you could say, “To make an additional $25,000 per year, you would need to earn $100 per day. That doesn’t even need to be for the full year. That’s $100 per day for 250 working days.”

You can work with that second statement. It provides more detail and much more context. Someone interested in building a side income can begin to see how it’s possible. It’s not some mystery, but now more of an opportunity. Data becomes actionable.

3. Visualization can be your friend

Randall Bolten tells us in Painting with Numbers that tools like Microsoft Excel provide a treasure trove of visual effects. But are they worth it? Do data visualizations actually help your audience or hinder them? 

We’ve all experienced that “death by PowerPoint” meeting. Whether in person or online, it’s that slow, mind-numbing slog through chart after chart, slide after slide. Please don’t do that to your audience.

The visuals in your presentations — whether charts, graphs or other tools — should add to your audience’s understanding by providing complementary information or another way to view what you’re communicating.

This isn’t a new idea. “Edward Tufte is a great resource for informational design and data visualization,” says Joseph Aranyosi, associate dean of the College of Business and Information Technology at University of Phoenix. “He encourages the use of ‘data-rich illustrations’ to more clearly present data.”

Here are a few ways you can enhance the effectiveness of your visuals:

  • Make sure to include labels that are clear and concise. They need to make sense in relation to each other.
  • Highlight information your audience will want to know. Use different colors and fonts — or underline key points — where needed. Bold and italics can help here too, but use them sparingly.
  • Investigate popular tools like Tableau, Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to enhance your data storytelling abilities.

4. Connect with their emotions

One of the best ways to engage and persuade your audience is through emotion. It’s part of the reason stories resonate so much. Proper data-driven storytelling can help you craft compelling narratives.

How can you utilize emotion in your storytelling? First, start with your audience. We identified who they were earlier. Here are a few more things to clarify about them:

  • What do they believe in? How do they see the world? What truths do they hold?
  • What are their emotional triggers? What affects them on a deep level?
  • What inspires or motivates them to action? What drives them?

The emotion is where you’re going to convince your audience. Do you have a motivational story for executives about the impact of their decisions on profits or company culture? Craft your narrative around that — and drive it home.

Are you pitching a potential partner on the benefits of working together? Understand their “why” for being in business. For instance, maybe it’s to help people maintain a work–life balance. Build the stories of how your company subscribes to the mantra of work that allows you to live and care for your family.

Putting it all together

Being a data-driven storyteller can be incredibly rewarding. You have the chance to help others understand key data, reports and findings that can have a real impact. But all that information is nothing without the story. The story is essentially the vehicle for communication — and action.

Earn your degree at University of Phoenix

Are you interested in a degree that also helps you understand business analytics? UOPX can help. The University offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Business with a Business Analytics Certificate that equips you with skills to help organizations use data for better decision-making.

Other key skills in this program include:

  • Business analysis
  • Leadership
  • Project management
  • Organizational negotiations

Learn more about UOPX business programs!

Photo of blog author David Domzalski smiling


David Domzalski is an entrepreneur, copywriter and storyteller. He’s an effective communicator with a passion for helping people better their lives financially. His writing has been featured on multiple outlets including AOL, FanSided, Forbes, GOBankingRates, MSN, Nasdaq and Yahoo. He lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two children. Connect with him on his website and check out his Copywriting Storyteller newsletter.


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