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”
The most successful business intelligence professionals are also great storytellers. Regardless of your BI tools of choice, it’s important to note that “business storytelling” is not synonymous with infographics or data visualization. Every analytic tool can slice and dice data in a multitude of ways, but, of course, correlation is not causation. (More on this in a moment…)
Also, effective 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 Redman recently wrote: “As Edward Tufte advises, label the axes, don’t distort the data, and keep chart-junk to a minimum.”
Redman’s next recommendation 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.”
Take a look at the “before” and “after” charts cited by Redman in his article. The annotations in the “after” chart tell a story how the company successfully improved customer data quality were successful, all in a very simple line chart:
The chart annotations (above) 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 a happy ending.
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. It was deservingly praised by Edward Tufte in his classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: “It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”
Minard painstakingly correlated multiple data sources: the movements of Napoleon’s army over time, their geographical location – 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 that hit a low of -30⁰ F/-38⁰ C.
Minard then brought his many datasets together in a very moving visualization that tells the tragic story of the 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 tell the story of the loss of life from violent conflicts of past history, but also in the future – by piecing together stories that help prevent global violence before it actually happens.
This critical world goal was covered in a Foreign Policy magazine article, Can Big Data Stop Wars Before They Happen? Author Sheldon Himelfarb cites three key trends justifying optimism that the answer will soon 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 the third trend he notes is the most critical to developing a clear story of human sentiment that can forewarn us of future 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, all effective business storytelling requires the same two core elements:
- Not just “more” data… Different data. Integrate of as many varieties of complimentary data as possible on the backend – structured and unstructured, internal and external. Doing so lets you present what has happened with strong correlation/causation, as well as enabling deeper advanced analytics (e.g., location-based, sentiment, predictive).
- Clear, annotated, “junk-free” data visualizations. Combine and present your data on the front end as a compelling story that conveys understanding, empathy and a sense of urgency to take action.