3 tips for Storytelling with Data: A conversation with Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

As communicators, we are responsible for bringing our audience on a journey, understanding and structuring our story to their needs. This statement applies to many fields, but especially data visualization and analysis.

At Tableau Conference 2019, Tableau Evangelist Andy Cotgreave had the opportunity to speak with Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Founder and CEO of Storytelling with Data. Cole spoke about the importance of designing for your audience, the power of low-tech planning and storyboarding, and the critical balance between art and science.

Watch the recording below and for more information, explore Cole’s Tableau Conference session, Low Tech Super Powers for Data Storytelling. Here are three takeaways from Andy and Cole’s conversation.

Tip 1: Step away from the computer

There is real power in a pen and paper. Cole highlighted the benefits of stepping back from your computer to think about the data visualization process, assess your audience, and to determine the needs you are trying to meet. Then you can start to create and sketch out a plan.

Cole argues that the great part about pen and paper is that you don’t get attached. You can easily refine your layout, gather feedback, and rip it all up if it doesn’t work. You can do this through a variety of approaches, but Cole shared some useful tactics:

  • Use words to refine pictures and pictures to refine words. Use sketching and iteration to refine your thoughts and solidify the direction of your story.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask “why?” We get a better understanding of our data if we don’t stop at superficial conclusions. We continue to challenge our assumptions and the assumptions of others. This helps us create a more robust story for our audience.
  • Use narrative to structure and plan. Look at the narrative arc of your data story. Storyboard using sticky notes or a whiteboard and seek feedback early. We’ll talk about this more in the next section.

These tactics help you see and understand your story before you dive into a tool, saving you time and creating a more refined product for your audience.

Tip 2: Build tension in your data storytelling

How do you craft a story that your audience really cares about? Beyond tailoring your story to the audience’s wants and needs, you should think of your data story within the context of a narrative arc. A narrative arc, often referenced in literature, is the composition of the story that includes an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. There is magic when you find the tension—the rising action—that matters to your audience. Use this tension to build the rest of your data story. Offer up actionable things that your audience can do to resolve that tension, drive that falling action, and eventually come to a working resolution.

You shouldn’t create a data visualization until you know who will be looking at it. Your audience drives how you craft the story and the visual cues you choose to guide them through the story. Start by mapping out everything you know about your audience and then focus on building rapport to establish credibility.

Tip 3: Hone your communication and persuasion skills

One of the marquee topics between Andy and Cole revolved around honing communication skills in addition to data analysis skills. We cannot be effective analysts unless we can communicate our findings to our stakeholders. Andy even has a series of blog posts around presenting data and the importance of crafting visualizations for your audience and adapting for different screen sizes. In the conversation, Cole references the Big Idea, coined by Nancy Duarte. Duarte defines the Big Idea as the key message you want to communicate. It should convey your unique perspective and communicate what’s at stake. You should be able to say it in one complete sentence with a clear audience in mind.

The concept of the Big Idea focuses on thoughtful communication, but this type of thinking can also make you more persuasive. When you are intentional in your planning, design, and your communication, your audience will pay more attention and understand how that data story relates to them, which means you can help craft a specific call to action. Action ultimately drives results and impact.

This is just a taste of all of the tips that arose during the conversation between Andy and Cole. If you want to learn more about storytelling with data, watch the full recording and check out Cole’s new book, Storytelling with Data: Let’s Practice!

Subscribe to our blog