Interview: Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic on Telling Engaging Stories with Data

Much to your delight, our series of data-visualization interviews with industry experts continues.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, author of “Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals“, who told us all about her love for data visualization.

Over the past decade, she held analytical positions in banking, private equity, and as a manager on the Google People Analytics team. At Google, she used a data-driven approach to inform innovative people, programs, and management practices, ensuring that Google attracted, developed, and retained great talent.

Today, Cole spends her time teaching organizations and individuals how to communicate effectively with data. You can learn more about Cole and her work at www.storytellingwithdata.com.

Cole, I’d love to hear a bit about your background and your interest in storytelling with data. Where does that originate from?

My career started in banking in credit risk management, which was a fantastic place to start an analytical career because there is so much data there.

That was the first place that I really started to understand and to see the value of data done well when it comes to helping someone drive a better decision.

It was also the first place where I started playing around with visualizing data and recognized that by taking the data and making it visual you can make it understandable and accessible in a new way.

From banking, I went to a space much less historically known for being data driven, human resources. But I joined HR in a very innovative company – Google – and was in an analytical role for a number of years, so I was able to continue to hone these skills.

At one point, we were developing an internal training program and I was asked to create content on data visualization, which was cool because it meant I got the opportunity to pause and do some research and start to better understand why some of these things that I’d arrived at through trial and error over time were effective. I then started figuring out how to teach those things to others.

One of the facts is that there is more and more data around us all the time but with that comes the increasing desire to want to make sense of all of it. Visualizing data is a fantastic way to do that and it’s been awesome to be able to teach others what I have learnt.

What are your top three tips for using data to create an engaging, compelling story?

I think for me the top tip is to start by considering your audience.

Too often we jump straight to making a graph or creating a presentation without ever thinking about the person who is going to be on the receiving end of that. Designing everything with your audience in mind is probably my number one tip

Secondly on any graph or slide you show, be very clear on what the point is that you are trying to make.

Ensure that point is clear via words, either in your spoken narrative or written down directly on the graph or on the slide, just so that your audience isn’t left wondering what they are supposed to be looking for.

Then, thirdly, step back and think about how you can use your data to tell a story. Considering what flow will work best for your audience and your situation and how can you make that data really tell a story that is going to engage your audience, get them interested and retain their interest.

Ultimately, use your data to motivate them, which for me is the goal out of all of this. Try to help your audience understand the data and make smarter business decisions.

What is the difference between simply showing your data and telling a story with it?

Too often we start by doing the former, simply showing the data and not thinking about the story.

For me, the story has a shape, a plot, a rising action, a climax where tensions reach their peak, a falling action, and a resolution

When we think about children’s books, for example, we use this narrative arc. This can also be used when we are communicating with data. The plot is: what does my audience need to know to be in the right frame of mind for the information I’m going to provide them with.

Then the rising action: what is the tension that is going to get my audience’s attention, what do they care about, what is not going as well as it could be or were there surprises that we found in the data that we can use to build tension and climax? What is the crux of what we have learned from our data and what action do we need our audience to take?

When I think of that story, the resolution, the ending, is the action that you need your audience to take in order to resolve that conflict, that climax, the tension that you introduced.

 

Thinking about our data in this way it really forces us to consider our audience and their needs and framing for them. The typical presentation of analytical results follows a linear path, where we perhaps start off with a hypothesis—here is the question we set out to answer, then here is the data, here is what we did to it, here is the analysis so that we can understand the data, and now here are our findings.

Thinking of the story in terms of that narrative arc forces us to shift our viewpoint and think about the data not from our standpoint but from our audience’s point of view. This helps to make it more understandable and actionable

What are the most common mistakes you notice in data visualizations?

There are two things I see happening probably most frequently that take away from data visualizations’ effectiveness. Firstly, the overuse of color. My view is that color, when used sparingly and strategically is one of your biggest strategic tools for drawing your audience’s attention to where you want them to focus.

I advocate for sparing and strategic use of color, always being intentional in where and how you use color in your data visualization. Really think of it as using it as a tool indicate to your audience where you want them to look

Secondly, I would say the lack of words to really help the audience to know what they are looking at and why they are meant to be looking at it.

I mentioned this before, but any graph should have a clear point that you are trying to make with it and using words, whether it is in the title of the slide or the title of the graph to say what that point is just helps make it more obvious to your audience.

Two people looking at the same graph are not necessarily going to walk away with the same conclusion.

So, if there is a conclusion you want your audience to reach, then you should use words to describe that. Those two things alone, using color intentionally to draw attention and then using words to tell your audience why you want to draw their attention there, go a really long way in terms of making an effective data visualization.

What is the first real-world example that comes to mind when you think about excellence in storytelling with data?

For me, top of mind when it comes to excellent examples of data storytelling is Hans Rosling, someone who you might want to check out.

For anyone who is not familiar with his name, he has done a number of TED talks and short videos with the BBC and the passion with which he talks about data and is able to walk the audience through a story is fantastic. Unfortunately, he recently passed away, but his work and his inspiration in data storytelling will live on.

Another example would be the US news media outlet FiveThirtyEight. They do a nice job of pairing really easy to understand straightforward visuals with their news articles. They are very clear how they relate to each other, the graph helps reinforce the story that is being told and makes it visual in a way that it is memorable. I highly recommend you to check it out.

What are your thoughts on the future of storytelling with data?

That is a big question, when I think about the future for storytelling with data, I think there is going to be a continued need for skills in this space, there is just so much data out there and there is the desire to want to make sense of all of it.

Those who can work with the data, make sense of it and make it accessible and actionable and visual for others are going to be in the best position for success in this space.

Where I spend most of my time is doing workshops and teaching people how to do that.

I go into organizations, spending half a day or a day covering the foundation or principle of communicating effectively with data in the specific case where there is a story you want to tell. Companies are fully aware this is a skill that is needed, that not many people naturally have and takes a lot of time to develop.

So, I am hoping to speed that up as much as I can through the work that I am doing, through the workshops and my book Storytelling with Data.

Many thanks to Cole for speaking with us.


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