Storytelling with You
August 28, 2023

Developing your skills in storytelling with you, not just data viz

By Paul Laughlin

Given their struggles when presenting (something I hear from many data leaders) I was delighted to see a new book Storytelling with you. It is the latest from internationally renowned Data Viz author, speaker, trainer & consultant, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. Following a successful career including Google, she is the founder & CEO of the Storytelling with Data (SWD) consultancy.

What delighted me about this book was its scope. Rather than focussing only on the individual challenges of crafting a story, data viz, slide creation or presenting, it covers them all. Cole recognises, as few others have, that the challenged faced by leaders is how to do it all. How to go from challenge/need all the way through to final presentation. Plus, she has relevant life experience to share.

For those who are not so familiar with Cole, back in 2015 she published the classic text Storytelling with Data. Since then her subsequent books, courses, online resources & #SWD community, have been encouraging better data visualisation around the world. Having personally benefitted from her books & training course, I can vouch for her being a very compelling communicator.

What do you mean storytelling with You?

So, what can you expect from this book? What is in it? Plus, what’s the meaning of the somewhat ambiguous title? The title plays with the title of Cole’s past classic, by replacing the word data with you. This positions the focus of the book. It is not mainly focussed on your communication of data, rather it takes a step back to look at your overall challenge, from start to finish. Brief to final presentation.

After a great way to start the book (inc. acknowledgements first & visually presented), Cole structures her content into three parts…

(1) Plan

In this section, she expands on some of the ‘getting a clear brief‘ advice familiar to readers of Storytelling with Data. There is more advice on ways to consider & tailor to your audience (even if they are diverse). You’ll find tips on summarising what you want to communicate so you have a clear primary message & context. The beauty of low-tech storyboarding shines through once more, together with practical advice on forming you potential content into a story. Some of the wisdom here reminded me of good ideas I gained from Resonate” by Nancy Duarte and is equally insightful but pragmatic.

(2) Create

Part two focusses on the practicality of producing your slides. There is a chapter on showing data in graphs (which nicely summarises greater depth in past books), but most focus is on other considerations. Many regular users of PowerPoint will be surprised how much they learn from her chapter on setting the style & structure of your template. Cole offers helpful specific guidance & recommended tools for often overlooked aspects (colour palette & fonts in your template). She also offers detailed advice & examples of how better to use text only slides & images.

(3) Deliver

In line with her own style of storytelling, the climax of the story focusses on you. Here there is so much that is helpful for presenters, but normally overlooked in data viz or data storytelling books. Cole includes chapters to help you prepare for your ‘big day‘ (presenting). A chapter with best practice form redefining through lots of practice is followed by one on building your self confidence. Her chapter on introducing yourself will also help leaders in many other settings. The finale is packed with tips for the day itself.

What did I take away as the key lessons from this book?

There was a lot to like and learn from this well written book. Cole has a delightful warm & approachable style of prose that still coveys a drive to keep learning & improving (and mastery of her subject). So, unlike too many business books, I did enjoy reading this cover to cover. That said I have read many great books on presenting & storytelling & data visualisation by other gifted authors. Did this add much?

My first comment would be that I learned a great deal. Although the chapters on creating a story & visualising my data felt like helpful revision, much was new & inspirational. Based on just what I still recall, Cole’s practicality on preparing your template in PowerPoint was very helpful. Her tips on managing diverse stakeholders, how to prepare for each and approach content for such a meeting were also excellent. Plus, I am left with an understanding of what & where so much practice is needed.

To help others understand why and how this book might help them, let me also compare it to some others. I have always found Cole’s content on data visualisation to be pragmatic & focussed on the graphs you will use 80% of the time. That is what helps her content to be so usefully complementary to books from Jon Schwabish or Andy Kirk. In addition to that practical wisdom, her pragmatic guidance on forming a compelling story complements Nancy Duarte’s focus in her detailed books on that topic. Cole’s practices tips on presence & being a presenter also reminded me of Lee Warren’s great little book “The busy person’s guide to great presenting”. It’s like Cole has foraged widely for us once again, to emerge with the 80% we will use most of the time.

Should data leaders buy Storytelling with You?

First, full disclosure, I was kindly provided with a free copy of this book to review. But only because I asked Cole for one, due to being so pleased to see that she was now focussed on this topic. That said, now I know that a good job Cole has done in producing such a useful toolkit for leaders, I would definitely buy it and recommend the same to my coaching clients.

Whether or not you should buy it depends on the challenges you face as a leader. Do you need to influence senior leaders or clients? Can youcommunicate a compelling message which motivates others to act? Could you improve your strorytelling, slides or presenting skills? If you answered yes to any of those questions then I urge you to buy, read & use this book.

One final element to highlight is Cole’s very effective use of a case study throughout this book. She shares with us a fictional company (Trix) and her challenge to communicate insights from customer research findings to them. In this case study she need to motivate them to act wisely now & build a trust that secures future business. Each chapter ends with this case study. Applying the theory in practice for us to see. So, we get a 12 part story which brings to life how we can step by step apply our learning. It is a great education tool & demonstrates Cole’s own mastery of this art. She even shares her final presentation to Trix on YouTube (although you will gain more reading the book before watching that).

Enjoy mastering your storytelling & investing in you.