Data Storytelling – How to Make your Reports More Compelling

Man planning out for data visualization strategy for data storytelling

So you want to tell the story of your data but don’t know where to start or how to make a compelling case for those who rely on reporting for good measure? Data storytelling does not have to be over complicated – it starts by asking yourself the questions you’d want answered most and then assessing whether your current reports are providing you those answers. 

As receivers of information, humans are constantly digesting what is visually being presented in front of us. Over time we have developed neural pathways, using them as tools to process information quickly and in ways that are familiar to us. From comparing and contrasting, pattern recognition, and associative/correlative thinking, we subconsciously use these methods to find answers and help ourselves understand what we are looking at. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself the questions you want answered and whether your reporting is actively doing so – this will give clarity to how information can be better communicated in your reporting based on what your brain is evidently lacking in order to process.  

Emotions will always be a bias in decision-making when it comes to us being the ones to make those decisions. However, another benefit of data storytelling, beyond better representing your data, is that storytelling allows for more immediate decision-making. While emotions may still play a role and are necessary when needing to think through decisions rationally, this independent action-driven thinking makes day-to-day decisions more efficient without the intrusion of error, overthinking, and biases. By being more responsive and adaptable through these visual reinforces, businesses can see impact in the moment. 

5 Ways to Make your Reports More Compelling 

  1. Follow the Gestalt Principles of Perception 

At the forefront of data visualization is the unique combination of colors, shapes, and format that feed into those neural pathways discussed earlier. The Gestalt Principles of Perception, laws of human perception, can be your guide to effective data storytelling, each serving as distinct features you can incorporate into dashboards, reporting, and presentations that are universal to all humans who are working to process the same information. 

Image showing various charts and graphs for data storytelling that use Gestalt principles of perception
  • Proximity – objects seen close together are perceived as a group 
    • Example: KPIs that relate on the shop floor and if alerted, should remind viewers to check the other metrics in correlation for concern
  • Similarity – objects that share attributes (color, shape, direction) are perceived as a group 
    • Example: Analyzing across departments or the same KPI YOY
  • Enclosure – objects within a boundary are perceived as a group 
    • Example: Top leadership needs a high-level view of your weekly report where their attention won’t get bogged down by the details
  • Closure – structures that are open can be perceived as closed and complete when there is a way they can be perceived as such
    • Example: Assessing progress to completion in projects across each of the supply chain facets
  • Continuity – objects that are on a continuation with one another can be perceived as a group 
    • Example: Understanding if there is any correlation over time or seasonality as you assess revenue, incidents, and top numbers
  • Connection – objects connected by a line are perceived as a group
    • Example: Tracking growth or diminishing returns as you make budget projections into the next fiscal year
  • Symmetry – even if far apart, symmetrical elements tend to be perceived as together
    • Example: Needing to communicate overall order and structure to stakeholders when sharing reports externally
  1. Define your structure 

All data sources should be available if they are needed to connect to for analysis, but you do not want to overcrowd the story your data is trying to tell you. Taking the time to know which sources are needed, the angle you need to interpret the data, and the outcome you wish to achieve (e.g. historical review, projection modeling, real-time reporting) will make it easier to define your objective and layer the data resources you are connecting to to minimize information overload and remain more data-driven.

  1. Become your audience
Woman standing up raising hand in large audience crowd

If you gave a book to 10 different people to read, no one is going to interpret the story in the exact same way. The same goes for your data. Because humans subconsciously react via these laws of perception, it’s important to add value to your reporting where it is most applicable to who will be reviewing it. From the KPIs that are included, to the emphasis put on various bar charts and tables, to the format of the entire data visualization, visual elements should be built as if the developer is in the audience member’s shoes, looking at these reports on a daily basis. What would I look for first? How would I correlate between the metrics I ask about most? How can I see an area of concern that is to be reported to upper management? 

  1. Stay consistent but change it up 

As soon as we get comfortable looking at something for too long, we may miss out on actionable alerts that need attention or can prevent more long-term impacts. Data visualizations should evolve with your business, which means having a periodic adjustment to your dashboards and reports you are visually communicating with on a regular basis. However, too much change can be detrimental and cause errors if employees don’t know where to look for insights they have become engrained to analyze in a certain way. Consistency across brand as well as the overall goal and format of the visualization will mitigate this risk and should only be changed if brought to the attention of everyone necessary.

  1. Remember to also show, not just tell

Often reports should tell us what we already know, validating our predictions or serving as a status reminder. Data visualization and storytelling should not only serve this purpose with clarity, but should also go beyond surface level and uncover hidden insights and correlations you may not have found otherwise. Challenge your team to go beyond the expected by cleaning all data, combining disparate sources, and implementing effective data management that can bring to light more than your current spreadsheets and reporting can.

Data storytelling is an art and a science – it requires a balance of the two by leveraging data that currently exists in your business while exploring new ways to display that information to be more compelling and digestible. It is one more critical step towards becoming a more data-driven organization and when done effectively, it can open opportunities to be ahead of future risks while also fostering greater innovation. 

See what else is achievable with your data and get in touch with the Bearex team today and contact us.

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Author

Andrew Gissal

As COO & EOS Implementer at Bearex, Andrew aims to help entrepreneurial businesses use data to gain traction through his experience in organizational leadership and startup sales & marketing.

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