Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals
Written By James King
4 min read
Storytelling With Data is a primer on how to effectively present or share data in a business context. Author Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic explores concepts and best practices learned throughout a career in data visualisation that has taken her from the People Analytics team at Google to setting up her own data visualisation consultancy and subsequently writing a book.
Summary of main ideas
Here is an overview of the key lessons:
Understand the context When presenting an analysis based on data, it is essential to consider who your audience is and what you want them to do. This information will affect the format, the length, the calls to action and more.
Choose an appropriate visual display An important takeaway from Storytelling With Data is the realisation that there aren’t really that many different types of chart. Choosing the appropriate chart for each specific use case can be learned by following some key principles. To put it in over-simple terms: you can rarely go wrong with a bar chart and you will almost always go wrong with a pie chart!
Eliminate clutter One important data visualisation best practice is to keep the data-ink ratio high as possible. In other words, remove as many elements as possible that are not adding information to a visualisation.
Focus attention where you want it Consider where you want your audience to pay attention and then do things on purpose to make that happen. Concepts such as Preattentive Attributes and Gestalt Principles are key here because they can be used as tools that take advantage of how the brain processes information to draw attention to specific elements or groups.
Think like a designer Take advantage of traditional design concepts such as affordances and accessibility to further improve your audience’s experience of a visualisation.
Tell a story Never simply show data. It is much easier to understand and remember a data analysis when it is presented as part of a story.
It is essential to consider who your audience is and what you want them to do.
How this book can help you
The importance of presenting information to people you need to influence or please is growing by the year, affecting pretty much anyone working in an office or ‘knowledge worker’ role.
But, most people have no understanding of how to effectively communicate with data. They place pie charts side-by-side to show a yearly increase in sales by category or they drown a budget request figure in oceans of unneeded data points and colours.
A complete data visualisation beginner reading Storytelling With Data will dramatically improve the quality of their analyses and presentations, practically overnight, by applying the best practices and concepts laid out by Nussbaumer Knaflic.
That is not to say it’s a book for beginners only. Individual chapters serve as great reference points and I’ve already reread the whole thing a few times.
I also love that Storytelling With Data is essentially tool-agnostic. While there are some great tool-specific resources out there - and these are important too - there is always a risk of becoming technically brilliant at Tableau or Excel (or any other data viz tool) and still confusing your audiences with parrot-coloured pie charts without understanding why.
Some good further reading/watching/listening
Watch Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic talk about Storytelling With Data at Google.
Where to get it
About the author
Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic is an expert at effectively communicating data having worked in analytical roles in banking, private equity and at Google, where she was a manager on the People Analytics team. Since leaving Google in 2009 to set up her own Data Visualisation Consultancy, she has traveled the world helping thousands to improve their data literacy as well as publishing Storytelling With Data in 2015, followed in 2019 by Storytelling With Data: Let’s Practice!
November 2, 2015
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