An appropriately told story has the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t: to communicate a strange new idea and move people to enthusiastic action.
~ Steve Denning, “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”
Panorama Software has just recently launched Necto 14, the newest version of its business intelligence software. In addition to many other new features, the company describes Necto 14 as being “visual, using infographics, graphic visual representations of information, to present complex information quickly and clearly; creating business stories that every business person can understand” (emphasis added).
I find this messaging to be exciting as well as timely, as I believe BI systems have not done nearly enough to enable business storytelling. But that should change in 2014, as BI author and thought leader Cindi Howson recently wrote:
The concept of storytelling is increasingly appearing in BI products whereby information and analyses are presented to support a decision-making process, a bit like PowerPoint.
Watching the Necto 14 online demo, I found some of the sample infographics told stories better than others. For example, does the following infographic-style chart quickly convey its intended business story(ies) more effectively than a more common variety of chart or data visualization? What do you think?
Regardless of your BI presentation solution of choice, it’s important to note that “business storytelling” is not synonymous with “infographics” or “data visualization”. BI tools can slice and dice data in a multitude of ways, but may not necessarily reveal any sort of causality. (More on this in a moment…)
Also, improving your business storytelling does not necessarily require advanced data visualization tools. Any organization can take a the first step towards better storytelling by following universal best practices when creating even the most simple chart. Data consultant and author Thomas C. Redman recently wrote: “As Edward Tufte advises, label the axes, don’t distort the data, and keep chart-junk to a minimum.”
The next step Redman recommends is also very simple: annotate your charts. “While annotations do not replace a well-told story [told by a speaker in a live meeting], they do give the reader some inkling of what’s involved.”
Consider the “before” and “after” charts (below) cited by Redman in his article. The annotations in the second “after” chart go a long way to tell a story how the company’s efforts to improve customer data quality were successful, while still in the form of a basic chart:
Looking at Redman’s “after” chart annotations more closely, they are not just helpful notes; they also comprise a second set of data (the key milestones of the company’s data quality program – by month), correlated with the monthly data quality measures. As a result of this data correlation, a time series cause-and-effect story emerges, complete with a beginning, middle, and (in this case) a happy ending: a once-severe and pervasive customer data quality problem has been solved.
This leads to a key point: the most compelling business stories are those that present strong correlation-causation relationships across many disparate yet complimentary sets of data.
Perhaps you have seen Charles Joseph Minard’s incredible 1869 data visualization of Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Minard was given the well-deserved contemporary recognition for this work by Edward Tufte in his acclaimed 1983 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, noting “it may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”
Minard painstakingly correlated multiple data sources, including the movements of Napoleon’s army over time across a map – marching to Moscow and then retreating from it – with the (rapidly narrowing) thickness of the line representing the number of Napoleon’s men, falling in battle as well as from deadly subzero temperatures reaching -30⁰ F/-38⁰ C. Minard’s data sources are brought together in a very moving visualization that tells the tragic story of the total futility of Napoleon’s Russian campaign and the misery of his soldiers culminating in overwhelming casualties that wiped out the Grande Armee.
Fast forward to today: Big data infrastructures and analytics hold huge potential to not only visualize and tell the story of the loss of life from violent conflict in hindsight, but also develop narratives that prevent global violence in the first place. This vital global goal was outlined in a recent Foreign Policy article: Can Big Data Stop Wars Before They Happen? Author Sheldon Himelfarb cites three key trends justifying optimism that the answer will become a clear “Yes”.
First, Himelfarb points out the increasing amounts of data being generated by more and more people through digital devices; and second, our expanded capacity to collect and crunch data like never before. But his third observed trend may well be the most critical to developing a clear story based on the root human causes that fan the flames of world violence:
When it comes to conflict prevention and peace-building, progress is not simply a question of “more” data, but also different data. For the first time, digital media — user-generated content and online social networks in particular — tell us not just what is going on, but also what people think about the things that are going on.
Excitement in the peace-building field centers on the possibility that we can tap into data sets to understand, and preempt, the human sentiment that underlies violent conflict.
Thankfully, the stories we want and need to tell in our respective organizations don’t fall into this same literal life-or-death category. However, storytelling that moves a business forward demands the same utilization of as many varieties of data as possible – structured and unstructured, internal and external. Doing so will require rapid, powerful data integration capabilities. This wider spectrum of highly diverse data sources must then be combined with clear, user-friendly data visualizations that convey understanding, empathy and a sense of urgency to take timely, opportunistic, successful action.