Your Data is Garbage Unless it Tells a Story Your Data is Garbage Unless it Tells a Story
If a tree falls in the forest… you know the aphorism. I’m using it here to remind you that your most important job is... Your Data is Garbage Unless it Tells a Story

If a tree falls in the forest… you know the aphorism. I’m using it here to remind you that your most important job is not data science – OK, maybe it’s not more important, but it’s equally important – is communications. When you do work, and your work remains in a vacuum, it serves no purpose. If your colleagues, bosses, clients don’t learn from your data analysis, then it is literally useless.

Did you know that one of the most-referenced skill requirements in job postings for data science professionals is communications? Yes, your potential employer knows how important it is too – it’s not just me saying this!

 

So communications is important – really important? Agree? Keep reading.

 

How do you communicate? Do you just show someone a spreadsheet and say nothing? Do you print out a chart, deliver it to your colleagues via inter-office mail (does that still exists?!?) without context? Do you email someone a giant list of facts in bullet point form? I hope not!

No, you tell a story. Story is defined in overly-complicated ways. Let me simplify. I just mean you tell a logical flowing linear sequence of information with continuity and completeness. There is a beginning, middle, and end. And your audience is not left doubting your credibility or thinking you’re hiding something or holding back when you’re done.

[Related article: Advantages and Best Uses of Four Popular Data Visualization Tools]

Data Science Research PapersHere’s the thing – storytelling is an evolutionary imperative. Story is literally the most important thing that has helped humans survive and evolve as a species. As Lisa Cron says, in Wired for Story, “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” It’s the story of the Neanderthal who ate the berries that poisoned him and led to a horrible, painful death that taught the entire village to avoid that one type of berry. Not everyone could witness it first-hand. And that story was told in a logical flowing way. It was not told like so: “Red berries. Death. Pain.” That might have worked…but a more dramatic, emotional, flowing story with memorable details would be far more effective.

For you doubters out there – for the data purists who insist “we are scientists – it’s different for us!” I point to this study, which found that the most influential scientists (those whose research is cited most often by other scientists) are those who use narrative techniques in their research reports.

Storytelling is critical, effective, and will help you do your job better. I’ll be talking about data storytelling at ODSC East in May and I can’t wait to share some tips and tricks, and research-driven best practices for storytelling and visualization that will help you think differently about your next project and implement specific changes to your work the moment you leave the room!

[Related article: 6 Reasons Why Data Science Projects Fail]

Editor’s note: Check out Bill’s talk “Data Storytelling – Communicating Your Data-Driven Ideas with Impact at ODSC East 2019 this April 30-May 3 in Boston!

Bill Shander

Bill Shander

Bill is an information designer, helping clients turn their data into compelling visual and often interactive experiences. Clients include the World Bank, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, Starbucks, American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, National Institutes of Health, and the City of Boston. He is the founder of Beehive Media, a Boston-based data visualization and information design consultancy. Bill teaches data storytelling, information design and data visualization on LinkedIn Learning and in workshops around the world through his Rock The VizComm platform.