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Book Summary – Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals

Storytelling with Data - Book summary

We live in an information age where we are surrounded by data and are often required to make data-backed decisions. This book by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic explains how you can use data to tell a clear and compelling story. The insights are useful for anyone who needs to communicate with data, be it students, analysts, leaders or managers. In this free Storytelling with Data summary, you’ll learn the 6 steps to tell a story with data.

Why Data Visualization?

Data is essential for understanding trends and insights, and for making sound decisions. Unfortunately, it’s often presented in a boring, confusing or even misleading way. Data visualization skills are increasingly valuable since they allow you to:

  • Communicate findings or insights effectively to facilitate decision-making;
  • Present a compelling case to persuade others or get support for your ideas/proposals; and
  • Stand out as a job candidate or employee.

Almost anyone can create use tools to create charts and graphs. However, few people can use data to tell a clear and compelling story.

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic spent years honing her data visualization skills in banking, private equity, and as a manager in Google’s People Analytics team. At Google, she developed a data visualization course which became so popular that she eventually started her own company, storytelling with data (SWD). In this book, she explains how you can use 6 steps to start telling a story with data.

Storytelling with Data: 6 Key Steps

For each of the steps, Knaflic walks us through the key considerations, processes and tips to make your data clear and compelling. Here’s a quick visual summary:

Storytelling with Data summary - 6 key steps

Let’s take a quick look at what each step entails. Feel free to get our full 15-page summary for a much more detailed breakdown with specific tips, examples, charts, graphics and diagrams.

Step 1: Understand the Context

Invest some time upfront to consider your context, core message and storyline. This will save you much more time in subsequent revisions or iterations.

Know your Who, What and How

Understand who you’re communicating to, what you want them to know or do with the information (including your choice of medium and tone), and how data be used to make your point.

Define your Core Message and Storyline

Focus on explanatory data (what’s relevant and important), not exploratory data (which  will only confuse the audience). To get crystal clear, try distilling your presentation into a 3‐minute story, a 1-sentence Big Idea, with an initial storyboard (or a visual outline of your content structure and flow).

Step 2: Choose an Effective Visual Display

Choose the most appropriate visual(s) for your data and objective. The good news is, you can address the bulk of your communication needs with just a handful of visual options.  In our full version of the Storytelling with Data summary bundle, we’ll explain:

  • Types of visual displays to consider, including simple text, table, heat map, scatterplot, slopegraph, line chart, square area chart and various types of bar charts;
  • Types of visual displays to avoid; and
  • Some dos and don’ts for your visuals

Step 3: Eliminate Clutter

All of us have a finite mental capacity, and every piece of information adds to our cognitive load. Clutter is anything that takes up space without adding to your audience’s understanding. In our complete summary bundle, we explain the Gestalt Principles of proximity, similarity, enclosure, closure, continuity, and connection, as well as other ways to eliminate visual cluttter (e.g. use of visual order, alignment, white spaces or contrast).

Here’s an example of you can eliminate unnecessary elements to make your visual simple but clear:Storytelling with Data summary - decluttering your visuals

Step 4: Direct your Audience’s Focus

Our brain is wired to pick up differences in our environment. Preattentive attributes are the things we notice without conscious effort. In our full Storytelling with Data summary,  we’ll elaborate on:

  • The 3 types of human memory relevant to visual communications;
  • The types of preattentive attributes (with illustrated samples) that affect where your audience will focus on and how they “read” or “register” your materials; and
  • How to guide their focus in the right place and sequence to achieve your goal.

Step 5: Think Like a Designer

This step is about ensuring that you design your visuals in a way that achieves your data communications goals. This requires that you understand several important design concepts including: Affordances, Accessibility, Aesthetics, and Acceptance.

Step 6: Tell a Story

Stories are powerful because they can capture our attention, spark our imagination, and take us on a memorable emotional journey. In this step, you’ll return to your storyboard in Step 1 to reconstruct your story using the 3-part narrative arc, with a clear Beginning (setting up the plot), Middle (bringing the problem to life) and End (call-to-action). Knaflic shares valuable tips about narrative structures, spoken vs written narratives, the use of repetition, sound-bites and animations, and additional strategies to strengthen your story. More in our complete Storytelling with Data summary bundle!

Getting the Most from Storytelling with Data

The insights in the book can be used with any type of data visualization tools, be it Excel, Google spreadsheets, Tableau, or Adobe Illustrator. Obviously, it takes time to go through the 6 steps above, get feedback and iteratively improve your drafts. The more you practice, the better you’d become.

If you’re ready to start improving your presentation and data visualization skills, do check out the our full book summary bundle. This includes an infographic, 15-page text summary, and a 26-minute audio summary.
Storytelling with Data summary - book summary bundle This book is full of examples and case studies across different domains, from education to consumer products and nonprofit organizations. Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic uses a range of charts and diagrams to discuss the choice of visuals, how to sequence or organize your data, what to emphasize or de‐emphasize, and to reinforce the key ideas in the book. You can purchase the book here or visit storytelling with data (SWD) for more details.

Want to go beyond data visualization to also write powerfully? Check out our summary for On Writing Well on principles and tips on non-fiction writing. Or, check out our TED Talks summary to get more tips on presentations and public speaking!

About the Author of Storytelling with Data

Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals is written by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic–a data visualization expert and the founder & CEO of storytelling with data (SWD). She held various analytical roles in banking, private equity, and as a manager in Google’s People Analytics team. Knaflic holds a BS in Applied Math and an MBA, both from the University of Washington.

Storytelling with Data Quotes

“For a design to be effective, it must be accepted by its intended audience.”

“Story is what ties together information, giving our presentation or communication a framework for our audience to follow.”

“Good data visualization…is not simply a collection of facts on a given topic; good data visualization tells a story.”

“A good story grabs your attention and takes you on a journey, evoking an emotional response.”

“Stories are magical. They have the power of captivating us and sticking with us in ways that facts alone cannot. They lend structure.”

Click here to download the Storytelling with Data summary & infographic

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