Storytelling with Data

By Robert Kosara 14 Août, 2012

Telling stories is an incredibly effective way of getting information across and making sure it sticks. For many millennia, stories were the main vehicle for preserving information as it was passed on from generation to generation. Today, we have fancy computers and more data than we know what do to with, but our brains’ ability to remember and pay attention is still just as limited. We need to be given information in chunks of the right size, and they need to be connected to each other. Stories provide that connecting structure between facts.

Let me introduce myself since I am a bit of an unusual Tabloid (as people here like to refer to themselves): I am a professor at UNC Charlotte, and I’m spending my sabbatical this year at Tableau Software. I also run a blog on visualization called eagereyes. My research this year is centered on storytelling with data and visualization.

Stories about data work differently than stories about people, but there are also many common patterns. Some types of storytelling are straightforward, like when you have a map and your story is like a road trip, or you have an obvious and important time axis. Even in these cases, though, there is more to a real story than just one thing after another: you want to show causality and connections between facts, point out surprising findings, etc. Take, for example, Charles Minard’s visualization of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812/13.

In my Tableau Customer Conference session, I will discuss the theory behind storytelling and some approaches to creating stories in Tableau. This will include some of the new features coming in Tableau 8, but also things that can be done right now in Tableau 7.