Leveraging the narrative arc to inspire data-driven action

Great visual analytics involves a sequence of steps which may be understood as both a science and an art. That sequence includes:

  1. Understanding the business objectives. These drive and guide the analysis and provide it point and purpose.
  2. Spending the time required to understand the data inside and out. (Exploratory analysis.)
  3. Identifying and curating the most important insights, to prepare for explanatory analysis.
  4. Refining the design for clear, effective, and efficient communication, reducing clutter and highlighting key data points.
  5. Providing visual hierarchy, to draw attention to first things first, second things second, and so on.
  6. Structuring the report to provide the right mix of breadth and depth — breadth so that the stakeholders can see the big picture, and depth so that they can’t miss what’s most important. 
  7. When the occasion calls, leveraging elements of a good narrative, to lead the audience along a progression of steps from attention to recognition to engagement and finally to action.

Each of these steps merits its own extended discussion. In this post, I’d like to draw attention to the seventh step: leveraging elements of good narrative to lead the audience to action.

To my knowledge, no one has discussed this more effectively than Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. Her book, Storytelling with Data, is the leading book on the topic, hitting many of the preceding steps, and then driving on to leverage the power of narrative in the presentation of the story.

Among the narrative elements she discusses are:

  • Establishing the setting, as a reminder of what we’re doing here and the shared goals we have.
  • Highlighting the problem as a tension between current obstacles and desired outcomes.
  • Viewing your audience as protagonists, whose actions will drive the story forward.
  • Taking a role in the story yourself, recommending possible courses of action, provoking your participants to engagement and leading toward resolution — i.e., data-driven action.

Her irrefutable point: You may have the best, most insightful, most beautifully designed analysis. But if you fail to effectively communicate that analysis, its sum total value is exactly ZERO. For at the end of the day, the sole point and purpose of analysis is to inform and generate action.

This is where Knaflic’s work is so valuable. If you’re short on time to read a book, Knaflic has presented this seventh point in the form of an entertaining and informative short video. Indeed, in this video she takes the discussion a step further to discuss the transformative power of the narrative arc:

  • Plot
  • Rising Action
  • Climax / Tension
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution / Ending

Only 15 minutes in length, her presentation is work of art. 

Properly received, her presentation should provoke you, as a data professional, to put the lesson into practice. May your future presentations be more focused, more meaningful, and much more effective at inspiring data-driven action.

One thought on “Leveraging the narrative arc to inspire data-driven action

  1. This article is a terrific summary of some of the biggest opportunities for us to make data more relevant (and entertaining!). I’ve just started Knaflic’s book- this delightful video brings to life several of her insights about how the power of storytelling can be harnessed to report findings in a way that not only captivates an audience, but also calls them to action. A tactic of great teachers and communicators through the ages is to use stories to explain reality, so why not do it with data?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s