Following the Data Story Line

Wendy Kelly
Oct 01, 2015

Use data that will let your hero understand the utter transformation he'll experience with you.

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Treat your data well. Teaching storytelling to data scientists seems to be trendy in some circles. But what if you're a storyteller who may have a history of abusing data? What if you're the type for whom numbers are like that big ugly sideboard you inherited from your great aunt? You know you should use it because it's there and it's too big to haul to the dump, but you're really not sure what to do with it exactly.

Big Data

What do you do with a large, faux walnut sideboard? Cover it in a neutral tablecloth? Put a large bowl of fruit on it?

Perhaps data for you is more like playing Iron Chef. You've got a great menu planned, and then the surprise ingredient, the one thing you must use, turns out to be an entire package of gummy bears. How in the heck can you integrate that into your blistered shishito peppers?

The point is that you need to figure out a way to use data in your stories and use that data well.

Find the Essence of Your Story

You know this is important. What is the core truth you need your audience to understand? Perhaps you have a vague sense that your hotel is the best in the Sea-to-Sky corridor. Fair enough. Perhaps you have worked hard, over many years, to make this so.

You would like this crucial message to get across to your audience across all your marketing platforms. Your website, your blog, all your social media, brochures. You'll want your staff to fully know and buy into your story.


Now Name Your Hero

Want to know a secret? The name of your hero is very similar to the name of your audience. Your hero should be your ideal {repeat} guest.

It's a heroic data based story written in the second person. Let's say you have done your research and you know this person. By the way, let's not just say that. Make sure you've done that research before you go any further 

Imagine your guest entering your hotel and being transformed by the stay. He's stayed in other hotels before. He's slept in less comfortable beds, been pampered less, jumped through hurdles just to get a reservation.

You know he'll love your hotel, and you know exactly why.

Complex Visualization

Enter Big Data & Lots of It

You've been gathering numbers. Stays in your hotel are up by 50% from ten years ago (when you took over operations). Visits to your website are also through the roof, and bounce rates are down. You know that guests are also booking for longer stays, and your shoulder seasons are filling 25% more rooms than 5 years ago.

And none of that matters to your hero.

It's great to know that you are doing a good job, and those numbers will probably be in the back of your mind, bolstering you along as you sell your hotel to your ideal guest. But at the end of the day, those numbers are just clutter. What you want are the data the supports your story. Truthful, honest data, but you want to weed out the useless numbers taking up space and complicating your story.

Data Supporting Your Story

Just as Ben Groulx wrote so well about design supporting content, the data should support the story, not the other way around. That may seem obvious, but often the numbers attempt to drive the story and in the process, the story swerves off a cliff hits a chunk of granite and explodes into a fiery mass.

Either that or your ideal audience gets bored and confused and stops reading.

So find data that will let your hero understand the utter transformation he will experience at your hotel. You might cite stats that let him know your hotel is part of his tribe: 75% of guests staying during summer season consider themselves to be avid mountain bikers, for example. Or 98% of surveyed guests rate the hotel as "superior" or "utterly perfect in every way". Knowing that a whopping 80% of guests are "repeat visitors" helps the hero with FOMO :) but also lets him know that he'll probably also enjoy himself and want to come back.

Simple and Focused: Examples to Notice

Avinash Kaushik, over on Occam's Razor, admonishes us (really, I can nearly see his finger wagging at me as I read) to use data and use it well. He lays out several points to keep in mind when weaving data into a story, but number 5 seemed especially relevant to this story. Convert words into pictures and expose complexity.

Here Is Today

The site Here is Today takes today, turns it into a coloured rectangle, and shows you where today is in relation to different times in the future and the past.

Simple Data Complex Story

In words that may be a bit boring, but in images, it's truly mind blowing. Check it out. The above image is the starting point. A simple square. By the time you see where today is in relation to the history of the Earth...well...let's just say it puts things in perspective.

Poverty Reduction

The Brookings Institute does an excellent job with an interactive graphic showing the decline in extreme poverty. You can stare at raw data all day long, but seeing the graph move ever more quickly to zero says everything.

Start with a story about a well-known donor who impacted the life of a real person living in poverty and illustrate it with that graph, and most likely you're going to get more new donors than you know what to do with.

New York Times Data Vis

Dieting at Christmas

Think a story about dieting after Christmas might be fun?  This graph from the New York Times tracking Google searches for "diet" through the  year is all you need.

The New York Times does an amazing job with data visualization and using data to tell the story.

Getting the Story Right

Once you start to find data that supports your story, watch out. An easy trap to fall into lies in the seductiveness of good data. You may fall in love with the idea of a graphic, find data that might support it, and create a story around facts that aren't exactly leading your audience where you want.

Watch for staying true to your original story, to your original goals, and make sure your hero ends up where you want him to: staying at your hotel.

The Society for New Design offers some great advice for journalists who need to stay honest and true to their story. Marketers should listen to this advice be aware of the importance of staying true to the correct story, and also being willing to listen to the data when it's telling you something. You may want to believe that your ideal guest is a 25-year-old adventure traveller who does triathlons and eats a paleo diet. If your data is telling you that he is actually 45 to 50 years-of-age, enjoys nature walks and eats cornflakes for breakfast, you better listen! Of course, if your ideal guest identifies strongly with that "alter image" things get a bit more complicated...but listening is important never the less.

Data Vis Resources to Take Advantage Of

Creating good data visualization for your story can be challenging. Some good resources exist, beyond the obvious Photoshop and Illustrator.

Flowing Data is an incredible website started by Nathan Yau, who began the project while still a graduate student at UCLA. You can take tutorials, read his blog, check out some cool visualizations, and buy visualizations as well. is dedicated to creating custom visualizations for you using its network of creators. The prices are reasonable and the work is very good.

Boston University is offering a Storytelling with Data Workshop that will cover everything you could ever want to know. Check it out.

A fun resource is OKCupid's blog, OKTrends. At the heart of this big data is people, and between the blog and the book that Christian Rudder wrote, you'll get a sense of what this stuff is all about and why you should care.

A great resource is Think With Google: Tell a Meaningful Story with Data. Read the article and learn even more about the importance of integrating data into your narrative.

I'd Love to Hear Your Story

Using data in storytelling adds that much more to your narrative. It takes time to integrate but the result is a story that is more refined and at the same time more grounded in reality. Based on facts and hard data, you can be sure that you're writing a non-fiction marketing story to engage your hero and make him into that ideal lifelong client/guest you've always hoped he would be.

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