Data Storytelling
February 24, 2022

Your Data Storytelling needs less data and more stories (part 2 of 2)

By Martin Squires

Let’s continue our exploration of data storytelling with the help of guest blogger Martin Squires.

Funnily enough, since publishing part 1 of this series, I have got hold of a book called From Data to Stories. It is an end to end guide of storytelling with Data Comics, so sounds right up Martin’s street. A review will follow when I get to that one on my reading list, but it looks good from an initial scan.

Anyway, as a reminder, Martin is Director of Advanced Analytics for Pets at Home. In part 1, Martin made the case for why storytelling skills matter not just effective data visualisations. Now in part two he shares with us how two popular TV shows can provide positive examples. How analysts can learn from the writing & how to apply these lessons to data storytelling. Over to Martin to conclude this series.

The “But & Therefore Rule” by Matt Stone and Trey Parker

To put it another way: Trey Parker and Matt Stones‘ rule for how not to write a boring story. The rule is pretty simple: When you create a story and you can put the words “and then” in-between each beat, then as Trey Parker said, “you’re f***ed”. That’s boring. But, if in-between each story beat you can put the words “but” or “therefore” then you have a story which flows. A story building momentum and tension based on everything else that has happened previously. 

Now, what if you replace the words “plot beat” with “Powerpoint Slide”? It’s not a big leap to see how this would make for far more compelling presentations. Watch this Youtube video from the lecture Parker and Stone gave to students at NYU and give it a try: 

Christmas Reviews Based On Game Of Thrones

Bear with me on this one. I’m not suggesting turning your next debrief into the red wedding. For anyone who’s ever served time in insight at a retailer you’ll know that the Christmas review tends to be a major set piece. It’s the inquisition into what went well or badly at Christmas. It’s mid-January time and usually takes at least half a day, sometimes a full day, with a heavyweight attendance from senior execs and C suite. For many years these were as traditional as Christmas itself. But instead of turkey and all the trimmings you got several hundred slides of Powerpoint! The team valiantly wades through footfall data, retail sales figures by category, brand, customer satisfaction, brand-tracking & econometrics. Basically if anything had been foolish enough not to move for long enough to be measured there’d be a chart for it. It was just as exciting as it sounds. There had to be a better way to tell the story. And there was, buried away in George R. R. Martins “Games of Thrones

Look at the chapter titles from Game of Thrones and you can see the chapters alternate Martins drives the narrative by telling the story from the perspective of the different characters. Ignoring the prologue, you set off with Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, then Eddard. You get the picture. 

Now take this structure and turn the Christmas review around. Reimagine it so the story gets told from the perspectives of various members of your “cast”. What was Christmas like for a store manager? What about a buyer, a marketing manager etc? Co-present the different sections with the different cast members. Suddenly the snoring stops and you have something that just works way, way better.

There are more examples to inspire data storytelling

There are loads more examples out there. Here are just three to consider…

  • Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. First written as tweets by Emma Coates, a former storyboard artist there, includes some gems that migrate really well into the data and analysis world. 
  • I’ve banged on enough about Eisner but if you do fancy inspiration from graphic novels then Alan Moore’s (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) “Writing For Comics” and Scott McCloud Understanding Comics give some great insights into how to visually tell stories. I’m pretty sure Alberto Cairo also used to include Mike Mignola and Hellboy in the recommended books on his website at one time. So the idea definitely isn’t as mad as it might sound. 
  • If you have a spare £150 or so for a subscription, then MasterClass even includes “Neil Gaiman teaches the art of storytelling“. Given he’s probably my favourite author I can’t really count indulging myself with that during lockdown as having been in any way work related!

The (hopefully) happy ending….Yes, the technical stuff is required. But it’s the initial hurdle this often a barrier to entry. You need to know how to use the tools well enough to create. But the art of data storytelling is the same as the art of any storytelling. The real value-add is via the creative process. 

So, put down your manuals for a while. Look at a few of the stories you love and see how they might help you tell your own (data) stories in a more compelling and exciting (yes, dammit, EXCITING!!!) way. 

Thanks to Martin for that encouragement/challenge. Let me add my Amen to his call for a focus on storytelling. Plus encourage more reading of fiction. Regular reading of novels also helps you see what could be a more compelling story structure. I hope this series has helped you focus on your own data storytelling craft. Martin & I would be delighted to hear what helps you tell more compelling data stories.