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How to Build a Story with Data

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

When you hear the term 'Data Analyst', what pops in your mind? You might start thinking about mathematics, statistics, and coding. While it is true that data analysis involves these skills, remember that the goal of data analysis is to help business users derive insights and drive decision-making.

This means that first and foremost, data analysis is "communication". If the data was not communicated effectively, business users may make the wrong decisions which lead to costly and time-consuming mistakes. The process of relaying information and insights about data is what we call data storytelling.

Like all stories, the story about your data should be compelling and coherent enough to grab and keep your audience’s attention, highlight the relevant information, and inspire action from your audience. Read on for our four steps to build a compelling data narrative.

Step #1 - Know your audience

Before you prepare your data story, you need to know to whom you are presenting it. The flow of your presentation, your language, and your visuals will all depend on who is receiving this information from you.

For example, information about the backend processes of your work will be interesting to a team of technical users but mind-numbing to business users.

When thinking about how to deliver your story, stop and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who am I presenting to?

  • Does my audience come from technical backgrounds or business backgrounds?

  • How much background information/context does my audience have?

  • What industry does your audience’s organization belong to?

  • Will there be any key decision-makers in the room?

  • What is my audience motivated by- cost reduction? motivating employees? streamlining operations?

Step #2 - Begin with the end in mind

Imagine going on a 40-hour road trip, only to find out upon arrival that you drove to the wrong location. Usually, you would avoid this situation by knowing exactly where you are headed and having a roadmap along the way.

Ideally, you would follow a similar process with your data preparation. Before you start sorting, analyzing, and visualizing your data, you need to have in mind a set of business questions that your data needs to answer. If your data answers the wrong questions, does not answer any question, or answers a bunch of unrelated questions, your audience will be confused, and they will not find your story insightful.

Make sure your data answers the right business questions.

Step #3 - Eliminate irrelevant information

You can consider this point an extension to step #2. When presenting, it is best to be direct, concise, and straight to the point. Too much information will distract your audience from the main points, and they might find all the details overwhelming or boring.

De-emphasize less important details and highlight the information that is most crucial to relay your point across. Also, do not focus too much on the particulars - numbers, decimal points, and statistical methods may not be as interesting to business users as they are to you.

Step #4 - Use visuals correctly

You might be thinking ‘I care about the information being accurate more than I care about it being pretty.' While having the right numbers is great, you need to make sure that what you are presenting is interesting and easy to understand, which is where visuals come in handy!

There are many tools and solutions that empower you to create eye-catching visuals, such as Microsoft Power Bi, Qlik Sense, Excel, and Tableau. However, make sure you select the right graphs, colors, and patterns when presenting your information. Keep in mind that bad visuals can mislead, distract, or confuse your audience.

Image 1: Example of bad visual vs good visual

Retrieved from:, Published on August 22, 2018

Image 1 presents two different ways to compare the information. Comparing two pie charts, for example, would be confusing and time-consuming for a human being, especially when there are multiple elements in each pie chart. Displaying the same information on a bar chart would be easier and more understandable for your audience.

Don't forget to rehearse!

After you have pinpointed your audience, prepared your visuals, and answered your business questions, make sure you rehearse how you will tell your story. This will help you catch things that can be modified and it will help you be more confident while presenting your information.

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