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A Brief Guide To Storytelling in Data Science

Numbers are crucial in data science — but they are just the start. How you present them to other people is where the magic happens.
Daniel Zacharias

Code Power Team

November 20, 2023

Imagine this: you’ve crunched the numbers, run the models, and come up with groundbreaking insights that could transform your business. You’re excited, you present your data to your team, but instead of applause, you’re met with confused stares. What went wrong?

Here’s the deal—data alone isn’t enough to get your point across. Sure, numbers are crucial. They’re the backbone of any data-driven company in the tech industry. But numbers are just the start: how you present them is where the magic happens. That’s where storytelling comes in.

Why storytelling matters

  • It adds a human element: Data can be cold and impersonal. Storytelling adds the emotional glue that makes your insights stick.
  • It simplifies complexity: A well-crafted story can break down complex data into digestible pieces that your team can easily grasp.
  • It drives action: When you’ve got a compelling narrative, you’re not just presenting numbers — you’re advocating for change.

So, if you’re a data scientist or a developer working with data, you’ve got to master the art of storytelling. It’s not just an “optional” soft skill — it’s a necessity.

Unveiling the characters: Who’s involved in your data story?

In every story, characters play a pivotal role. The same applies to your data story. So, if you truly want to tell a proper story with the information you’ve gathered, then you need to know each character intimately. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind. 

Know your audience

  • Your team: These are the people you work with every day. They need to understand how your findings will make their lives easier.
  • Stakeholders: These are people that might be interested in the numbers but not necessarily versed in data analysis. Your team is obviously a stakeholder but so might be some providers, investors, partners, or even clients. 
  • The C-suite: The higher-ups want to see how your data will improve business outcomes.

Understanding what each group needs to take away from your data story will help you tailor your narrative effectively.

Don’t be the lone narrator

  • Collaborate with other departments: Developers, marketers, and even HR can add layers to your data story.
  • Gather diverse perspectives: Different team members will see various angles in the same set of data.

Remember, the more well-rounded your story is, the stronger it will resonate.

Setting the scene: The power of context

It’s not just about the what, it’s also about the why and the how. Setting the scene provides your audience with the necessary context they need to fully understand your data narrative.

Frame it right

  • Timeframe: Whether you’re looking at a year-long trend or week-to-week changes, make it clear.
  • Market conditions: External factors can hugely impact your data. Make sure to include these in your narrative.
  • Previous initiatives: Have you tried something similar before? How did it pan out?

By giving a full picture, you make your story more believable and arm your team with all they need to implement your insights.

Use relatable analogies

A great hack is to use analogies that resonate with your team’s experiences or pop culture references. The goal is to make your data relatable and understandable.

So next time you’re presenting a report or analysis, don’t just throw numbers and graphs at your team. Tell them a story. Trust me, you’ll have a far greater impact, and you’ll turn that sea of blank faces into a captivated audience.

The plot thickens: Creating a compelling data narrative

Just like any great movie or novel, your data story needs a well-crafted plot. A flat storyline won’t do you any favors. So, let’s break down how to craft an engaging narrative around your data.

Essential elements of a data story

  • Introduction: Set the stage by providing the problem statement or question you’re tackling.
  • Climax: Highlight the most critical insights or “aha” moments from your data.
  • Resolution: Sum up how these insights solve the problem or answer the initial question.

Make your visualizations speak

  • Choose the right chart: Bar graphs, pie charts, and heat maps—each has its specific use-case.
  • Simplify: Avoid clutter and use straightforward labels to keep the focus on key takeaways.
  • Create a flow: Use a logical progression of visual aids that corresponds with your story’s unfolding.

Visualizations can make or break your story, so choose wisely.

Create an engaging flow

  • Start strong but save the best for last: Hook them with something intriguing, but save your most impactful data for the climax.
  • Keep it coherent: Each slide, chart, or point should feed into the next, creating a smooth narrative flow.

When your plot makes sense, your team is more likely to follow along without getting lost in the details.

Show, don’t just tell: Visual aids and their importance

Visual aids aren’t just decorative elements; they’re storytelling tools in their own right. They can amplify your narrative, making your data not only understandable but also memorable.

Types of visual aids

  • Static: These are your standard bar graphs, line charts, and pie charts.
  • Dynamic: Think interactive dashboards or real-time data feeds that let your team dive deeper during your presentation.

Rules for effective visuals

  • Keep it clean: Too much information in one visual can be overwhelming.
  • Stay consistent: Stick to a similar style and color scheme throughout your presentation.
  • Add a legend: Always explain what the different elements in your visual aid mean.

Remember, your visual aids should serve your story, not distract from it.

Dialogue over monologue: Engagement is key

Data presentations often run the risk of being one-sided affairs. If you’re just throwing numbers and insights at your team, you’re missing out on valuable input.

Make it interactive

  • Pose questions: Ask your audience what they think or how they interpret a graph.
  • Use real-time polls: Tools like Slido or Kahoot! can make your presentation interactive, giving you instant feedback.

The more you engage your team, the more invested they’ll become in your story.

Collect and use feedback

  • Listen to the room: If your team seems puzzled or disengaged, be ready to adapt your narrative.
  • Post-presentation survey: A quick anonymous survey can provide valuable insights for future storytelling endeavors.

Involving your team turns your data story from a monologue into a constructive dialogue, enriching everyone’s understanding.

Unearth the emotion: Why feelings matter in data

In any compelling story, emotions run high. It’s no different for your data story. Data may seem inherently neutral, but when you’re advocating for change or trying to make a point, how your team feels about that data can be a game-changer.

Impact over numbers

  • Stir urgency: Use data that conveys a sense of urgency to act now.
  • Build empathy: Show how your insights affect real people, whether it’s team members or end users.

Tug those heartstrings

  • Personal anecdotes: Share experiences that relate to the data. If you’re discussing user experience, tell a story about a particular user’s journey.
  • Music and sound: Believe it or not, a well-timed sound effect or musical cue can drive a point home.

Remember, data doesn’t have to be dry. Infuse it with emotion, and you’ll make a lasting impact.

Pulling it all together: Your storytelling toolkit

You’ve got all these storytelling elements—characters, plot, visuals, emotions—now it’s time to assemble them into a cohesive narrative. Think of this as your storytelling toolkit.

Your toolkit essentials

  • A clear outline: Know where you’re starting and where you need to end up.
  • Strong visuals: Prepare your charts, graphs, or any other visual aids beforehand.
  • Emotional hooks: Keep in mind what will engage your team emotionally.

Assemble with care

  • Revise: Always iterate on your story. First drafts rarely cut it.
  • Practice: Run through your presentation multiple times to get the flow right.
  • Test: Present to a small group first and gather feedback.

A well-assembled toolkit makes the storytelling process smoother and more effective.

From pitch to implementation: Making it actionable

At the end of the day, your data story needs to drive action. No matter how compelling your narrative, if it doesn’t result in meaningful change, you’ve missed the mark.

CTA is king

  • Define clear calls to action: What steps do you propose your team take based on your insights?
  • Prioritize: List the actions by impact and feasibility.

Gain buy-in

  • Decision-makers: Make sure the higher-ups are on board. Their support often accelerates implementation.
  • Team involvement: Engage your team in the action plan. The more invested they are, the more likely they’ll help carry it out.

By crafting an actionable end to your data story, you’re not just a storyteller — you become a change-maker. Your storytelling journey in the realm of data science is nearing its impactful finale. As you see, it’s not just about data and numbers: it’s about making those numbers dance, pulling at heartstrings, and most importantly, triggering action. What comes after action? Well, that’s another story altogether, one that you’ll write with the outcomes of your current narrative. Stay tuned!

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