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In Storytelling with Data: Let’s Practice!Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic presents a new guide to data communication, featuring over 100 hands-on exercises and 250 data visualisations to help build skills in impactful data communication grounded in effective storytelling. Intended for anyone committed to improving their ability to communicate data and complemented by a website that enables users to further hone their skills, this book is written in a fun, friendly and accessible manner and will be highly appreciated by visual learners and creative data-minded individuals, writes Andreea Moise

Storytelling with Data: Let’s Practice! Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. WILEY. 2019.

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‘Anyone can put some data into a graphing application and create a graph. This is remarkable, considering that the process of creating a graph was historically reserved for scientists or those in other highly technical roles. And scary, because without a clear path to follow, our best intentions and efforts (combined with often‐questionable tool defaults) can lead us in some really bad directions: 3D, meaningless color, pie charts’ (Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, 2).

Following all the hard work of wrangling, cleansing and analysing data, achieving the desired impact when communicating valuable insights is perhaps the most rewarding experience for anyone producing data visualisations. When crafted effectively, data visualisations are the most powerful tools in the arsenal of any data professional and there is no doubt they can help drive better decisions in organisations. Yet, bad graphs tend to be seen in places such as the media where you might expect people to know better. Examples include visualisations that are too difficult to understand, the inappropriate use of graphical elements (e.g. scale, size, colours), misleading the audience into seeing patterns not actually present in the data and potentially leading to biased conclusions.

When creating a graph, the challenge is to identify when details aren’t necessarily obvious to your audience despite being almost always clear to yourself and then to make further necessary refinements. An effective way to master the craft of clearly communicating results using impactful and intuitive visualisations is drawing on practical learning resources.

Complementing the work of data visualisation pioneers like Edward Tufte, Storytelling with Data: Let’s Practice! is intended for anyone who is committed to improving their own ability in communicating with data or to developing others through providing good coaching and feedback. As one may anticipate from its title, this is not a traditional book that you can just sit and read. To get the most of it, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic advises readers to approach it as a fully interactive experience – going through the exercises, drawing with pen and paper, discussing with others, seeking feedback and practising preferred tools.

The book is structured into ten chapters, beginning by focusing on the ‘big picture’ topics such as understanding the context and the audience and then moving on to address more specific aspects related to design and storytelling. Most chapters start with a brief recapitulation of key lessons covered in the original Storytelling with Data, (focused more on the theoretical aspects of data visualisations); these are followed by many practical examples, guided practice and open-ended exercises that help build one’s own confidence and support mentorship of others.

In Chapter One, Cole introduces a set of tactics focusing on three key aspects of the planning process for communicating with data – getting to know your audience; crafting and refining main messages; and planning content. At this early stage, it’s helpful to realise that having a core audience in mind puts you in a better position to meet that audience’s needs as opposed to unrealistically trying to consider the needs of a wide audience. In addition to practical advice (such as setting time to get a debrief from others who are familiar with the audience) and questions you should be asking yourself for the purpose of communicating (such as, who cares about this data?), Cole also introduces the ‘Big Idea worksheet’. Not only does completing this worksheet up front help with clarity and concision regarding the overall idea that needs to be communicated to the audience, but it also makes it easier to plan content in order to get the key message across in a more streamlined fashion.

Chapter Five highlights the importance of being thoughtful in all aspects of design to make data more easily consumable for the audience, helping ensure the message comes across clearly. Throughout this chapter the practical exercises aim to help the reader think as a designer, focusing on applying four key concepts – affordances (aspects inherent to the design indicating how to use and interact with a visualisation such as font, colour and size); aesthetics; accessibility; and acceptance – and illustrating how minor changes can help take a visual from acceptable to exceptional.

Words used in visual communications play a critical role in how people comprehend what they are seeing and can assist in shaping their perceptions about data. Various powerful strategies for this are demonstrated in the book, such as the use of clear, concise take-away titles, descriptive text and the strategic positioning of grey text to help clarify what one wishes to de-emphasise for the audience.

Too often we leave it to our audience to figure out the key messages on their own and good work and improved understanding is missed as a result. Clearly answering the question ‘so what?’ is the minimum level of ‘story’ that must exist anytime we communicate with data for explanatory purposes. Chapter Six highlights the importance of not just showing the data, but also making it the pivotal point in an overarching story. Pairing effective visuals with a potent story will help the audience recall not only what they saw but also what they heard or read.

The value of well-told memorable stories is that they can also be retold, empowering the audience to help spread the message. The tool that Cole recommends for structuring stories is the narrative arc composed of the plot, rising action, the climax, falling action and the ending. To create the rise, we must identify the tension that exists for the audience. Tension is critical and often an overlooked component when we communicate with data. If the tension does not exist, you have nothing to communicate in the first place. Viewing the story path as an arc also encourages us to think about how one idea or component relates to the next. This is easy to skip when we arrange things linearly and can help identify where we might need additional content or transitions to ensure a smooth flow. The arc forces us to think about the path on which we take our audience. Compared to linear storyboarding, the narrative arc encourages us to think about things from our audience’s perspective in a more in-depth way. This is the most important shift that happens when people move from how we typically communicate in a business setting to using the narrative arc and story: with stories, one must step outside oneself and think critically about what will work for our audience.

By far superior to many other existing learning resources, Storytelling with Data  is a very well-written practical guide, communicated in a fun, friendly and very accessible manner. With more than 100 hands-on exercises, over 250 data visualisations and beautiful illustrations, I have no doubt it will be highly appreciated by visual learners and creative data-minded individuals, not limited to leaders, managers, teachers, students, analysts, data scientists and other data professionals regardless of their background and level of experience.

What is more, the learning experience does not have to stop by the time you have exhausted the full contents of the book. For those interested, there is also a ‘Storytelling with Data’ website where additional content is regularly published and where a monthly #SWDchallenge takes place that pushes participants to hone their skills, challenge assumptions and try new tools and methods.

Storytelling with Data inspired me to be more thoughtful in the overall structure and design of my visuals and the pages that contain them and to avoid relying on default tools, because when we create a better experience for our audiences, we improve the odds of successful communication.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Andreea Moise
Andreea Moise is Principal Quality Improvement Analyst at Family Nurse Partnership National Unit, a home visiting programme targeted at first-time young mothers and their families. She previously held a number of research and analytical positions in the private, voluntary and public sectors. Her research interests include child development, wellbeing, reducing inequalities and education with a particular focus on longitudinal modelling and using data and research to drive improvements in public services. Andreea holds a master’s degree in social research methods and social policy from London School of Economics and currently she is doctoral researcher at University College London. She tweets at @moise_andreea.