Data Storytelling — going beyond the numbers

Alessandro Lemser
4 min readOct 28, 2020

With the incredible volume of data available today, and the technologies to extract the best out of it, people and companies now have an enhanced capacity for taking informed decisions, and on a much wider spectrum than before. However, to have all this data at your disposal does not mean success. Now that we are more informed, how to persuade and influence people so that they get engaged and value your information? How to use data properly to promote a high insight-to-value conversion rate?

Data Visualization: an emerging skill?

In recent years we’ve seen a growing number of data professionals being hired by companies worldwide. Most of them are hired to perform core activities like data discovery, data preparation and analysis. What it is not clear is how “last mile” skills, the ones often required for converting insights into actions, are present in these professionals.

By doing a quick search over the web with a term like “data skills 2020” a number of results will mention data visualization as a required one for data professionals. There must be a reason for that and it may be more than presenting rich dashboards and statistics. “When done well, data visualization tells a story”, phrases the author of this article, mentioning a president of a staff firm.

In 2009, Google’s Chief Economist Dr. Hal R. Varian stated in an interview: “The ability to take data — to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it — that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.”. It is known that the initial efforts applied in data discovery, further processing and its availability as comprehensible information, are big. Therefore, if the last mile skills such as data visualisation and communication are not performed properly, they may compromise all the hard work done previously, and it may not give the expected outcome.

Data storytelling aims to increase the chances of converting insights into actions. It aims to captivate people and include the emotion as an ingredient. Data storytelling is not to be confused with a sequence of nice graphs. It is not bound to visualization per se, but is sustained by it. With a story one looks for engagement, understanding and remembrance. It is just like any good old story, but a very real and veridic one, and aligned with the goals of the audience.

How to make it stick

So, what is the difference with data storytelling? What can we put together to help the numbers and the graphs? As a concrete example I would like to mention this presentation. Please, take some time to walk through it. Notice how a story develops and how it differs from what we commonly see. By combining the right visuals and narrative with the right data, the results can be more effective for the audience.

Image source: Forbes

“Data storytelling is a structured approach for communicating data insights, and it involves a combination of three key elements: data, visuals, and narrative (Dykes, Forbes 2018, para. 4)

For thousands of years stories helped to spread culture, knowledge and our own history. Today it is no different and it is part of our lives in the digital world. Think about the TED talks. Many TED talks subjects are based on data and the way speakers try to influentiate is through a good story. The good stories there keeps the audience captive. Here is a good example of a story based TED talk. The data is used to validate the history and the story seeks engagement.

Science also considers that emotions are often part of the decision making process, not just data based logical thinking. Neuroscientists have confirmed that through experiments.

Considering that between 30 and 50% of the neurons in your brains are purely concerned with visual processing, and visual processing is done 60% faster than pure text, adding a story can be a game changer. Maybe it is the missing ingredient for making one’s presentation to stick.

Think about a presentation you made and you felt like people seemed to be distracted or with a indifferent facial expression. The way you convey the information makes a lot of difference. If data is the main input for decision making, thus data visualization and presentation skills are definitely vital. A story, backed by data, may increase confidence once it translates the presenter domain on the subject. Consequently, it has the potential to persuade the audience no matter how big is the outcome. From a next quarter investment decision to a feature that one might be willing to push for the next product release.



Alessandro Lemser

Engineering Manager at Toast. I’m passionate about creating a productive, inclusive and safe environment for people to work.