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Clear Thinking Communications Using Data to Tell Your Story

How Data Can Tell Your Story

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: How Data Can Tell Your Story

From time to time, a debate springs up among communicators about whether data or stories are more powerful in getting your message across. I don't think it has to be an either/or proposition. Good data, powerfully presented, can go a long way in telling your story.

Visually appealing data accomplishes several things:

  • It reinforces the story that you are likely already telling through a narrative.

  • It attracts visual learners.  Anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of people learn best visually.

  • And it provides answers for skeptics who demand to see data. They might well be moved by a well-told story (and also remember that story long after they have forgotten the data), but well-presented and clear data provides analytical minds with the input they require to receive your message.

Computer technology has  encouraged the field of "data visualization." These graphics can include bar charts, tables and maps as well as more complex and sophisticated computer-generated visualizations and animations.

While an unlimited number of possibilities exist to showcase your data, a common theme among experts--and one that I adhere to--is to keep the information simple.   A simple and clear chart or table will tell your story infinitely better than a complex, multi-media visual that is jam-packed with data. Even sophisticated applications can still keep the message simple.

In the past few months, I've come across several resources that provide references and examples that might help you better tell your story through data.

Presenting Data:

In 2009, the United Nations published a fantastic guide entitled Making Data Meaningful: A Guide to Presenting Statistics. One of the many things I love about this guide is that it starts out emphasizing the importance of telling a story through narrative. It encourages writers to contemplate basic questions before creating charts or tables: who is the key audience, what is the context of the story being related, and how will the story be told.

Only then does the guide suggest finding data that helps tell that story. Some of the most valuable parts of this guide are the practical suggestions for visualizing and presenting statistics. The guide cautions against becoming too enamored with the latest technology tools. It emphasizes the importance of understanding how humans perceive information in creating graphics.

This guide also provides many helpful specifics - including an explanation of why statistics are often better understood in charts rather than tables. Throughout, it shows good and bad examples of tables, charts and maps. The guide also delves into animation and video techniques. This report is well worth printing out and keeping close by as you think about ways to present data most effectively.

Examples of Data Effectively Presented:

For inspiration about ideas to make data visually compelling, look no further than USA Today, most metropolitan newspapers or your favorite glossy magazine. Most large newspapers and magazines invest heavily in finding ways to tell their stories through eye-catching graphics.  If you find a graphic you like, cut it out and start a graphics file of examples to remind you of the power of well-presented data.

Other organizations are also taking the time to make their points through compelling graphics. Here is an example of a vivid representation of the U.S.'s most popular psychiatric drugs.

Also, Engin Erdogan, who works for the organization IDEO, (known for its smart use of design), wrote a thoughtful article on how to improve visual design.  He has several examples, including one that shows the space that 60 people take up on a city block, depending on whether they drive, take a bus or ride their bicycle.

Finally, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--a data-driven foundation--has invested heavily in making data come to life. It has an infographics page on its website that provides visually appealing facts about its work. In one example, to show the rapid decrease of polio around the world since 1988, the foundation created an interactive timeline with a map of the world.

For those of you on Twitter, if you search for "data visualization" you will find many other great examples. 

When you are thinking about how to tell a story of your organization or grantees, think always about ways to tell that story through data. You will reinforce your message and appeal to a broader group of those people you most want to reach.


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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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