Book Review – “The Data Storyteller’s Handbook”

A book cover which reads "The Data Storyteller's Handbook: How to create business impact using data storytelling by Kat Greenbrook" along with diverse illustrations of different people kindly interacting, a kiwi and a penguin.

Kat Greenbrook is a data storyteller from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Through Kat’s online presence and shared material over recent years, I’ve been an admirer of both her graphical style and industry-leading content in the field of data storytelling. So, when I learned she was writing a book, I jumped at the chance to talk to Kat to learn more about the process behind the book and its contents.

Our (edited) conversation is below – I hope you get as much from it as I did!

Neil Richards (NR): Tell me a little bit about yourself and what your role is. How did you become a data storyteller?

Kat Greenbrook (KG): Okay, I’m not going all the way back but… when I left university, I worked for a good ten years in analytics. I was a SAS coder and built predictive models for large organisations. But I was really frustrated with the job I was doing. I’d build these models, spend months on projects, and the output of all that work didn’t really go anywhere. It wasn’t creating the business impact I was hoping to achieve. So, I thought I’d try to change my career.

I wanted to get out of analytics and try something different, so I re-trained in digital design. I did a design degree over two years. I was working as an Analytics Consultant at the time and was intent on leaving the field. I planned to become a graphic designer and do something completely different. But as fate would have it, around this time, data visualisation started to get popular. This was the infographics era, and I was in the right place at the right time to jump on board that train.

I leaned quite heavily into data visualisation as a solution to engaging people with analytics. I thought that if I could make something pretty enough, it would have more of an impact and that data would be able to change things a little more.

It didn’t happen that way – the more I worked in data visualisation, the more I realised that data visualisation will only get you so far. It was a communication problem rather than a design problem. So, I set about trying to improve my communication skills — just in general. I went to a science communication conference and listened to someone talking about narrative structure. It was the very first time I’d ever heard that term. And that was my lightbulb moment — when I realised what was missing from my data visualisations, and what would help me answer that, “so what?” question. You know when you create a visualisation and people are like, “it’s pretty, but so what?”. That’s the first introduction I had to narrative, and from then I haven’t looked back.

An infographic which reads the different data story types. A summary data story, character type, is illustrated into summary act one, nested data story, summary act two and summary act three.
Example page featuring practical resources and signature Kat-style graphics

NR: It’s such a familiar story. I also started in a sort of background data processing role, similar to you but not as clever! You have that first realisation when you wonder whether anyone is actually looking at this data or doing anything with it. Then you take that next step into data visualisation and feel like you’re closer to that point of trying to explain data and get people to understand it. You almost have to have that second realisation that says, “we still need to help people to bridge that gap”. I love the fact that, again similar to me, you’ve just come across the idea of narrative quite recently, because if you perhaps come from a STEM background and don’t come from a traditional story background, it’s a whole new way of looking at things.

KG: Absolutely, it’s a different perspective that completely changes the way that you view the work than you do.

NR: It’s such a hot topic – I’ve been up and down in the past on the idea of data storytelling and I’m very much “up” on the idea at the moment, but do you tend to get pushback on it? Or the idea that storytelling is some kind of term that people might dispute what its meaning or usefulness is?

KG: Yes, especially in the early days. I started running data storytelling workshops around six years ago and in the first couple of years there were a lot of pushbacks. Some of it was from people who had gone through certain educational pathways: those very scientific, very analytical pathways. In these you get taught not to introduce any bias in how you communicate data. And then here I am, telling people to pick a message, to communicate a message! For them, it was a real case of, “no, that’s not what we’ve been taught, that’s not what we’ve been trained to do”. I also felt that way to begin with. My degree was in science. I come from that educational background as well. So, for me it was also a shift in my thinking. 

Some of the pushback also came from people not really understanding what it means to do data storytelling. Sometimes, people think of it as this creative, fictional thing, almost like you’re cherry-picking data to support a predetermined narrative. But this is not good data storytelling practice.

NR: No, of course not. I suppose people might interpret storytelling as being like a fable, a fantasy, or a lie. I think narrative is so key – getting the narrative structure and explaining that that’s how you need to get your message across. You’ve been doing the workshops for about six years. What made you decide to write a book?

KG: [nervous laugh and pause]

NR: I love the pause – as someone who’s been through that himself, it’s probably a case of, “yes, what was I thinking?!”

KG: Yes – why did I do this?!

A woman in a maroon sweater and a man in a green shirt join in a laugh over an online video call.
Our reaction to the idea of why either of us thought writing a book was a good idea …

It was initially to complement my workshops because I was constantly asked, “what can I read more of, how can I upskill, how can I build on what I’ve learnt today?”. I had a list of recommended resources but there wasn’t anything that I could point to and say, “everything we’ve talked about in this workshop, you can find here”. So, I wrote the book to build upon what I cover — so people could go a little deeper, learn at their own pace, and have that resource available.

But I think there are lots of reasons to write a book, and one of my personal ones is to position myself a little more as an expert in the field. I’m based in New Zealand and it does feel very isolating all the way down here! It’s been amazing, actually, having written a book. I feel much more connected to so many people around the world. It’s really opened my network, which I’m enjoying.

NR: Yes, you’re talking to a guy who has a copy of your book in his hand, twelve thousand miles away. It’s a nice feeling isn’t it? [Edit: apparently Wellington, New Zealand is 11602 miles away from my village as the crow flies, I’m pretty pleased with that guess!] I love the book – I follow you and am aware of your work. I haven’t been to your workshops, but I’ve used a couple of your slides before. Whenever I have one of your slides, I know it’s a Kat Greenbrook slide. You can tell from the colours, you can tell from the design; you have such a unique design style, and so this book has a lovely aesthetic to it. You said earlier that you were really interested in going into graphic design. Was this a chance to put some of your graphic design work on show as well in the book?

KG: Yes, the work I’d done to date did lean very much into my graphic design background. That’s just how I like to tell stories, using those kinds of visuals rather than the more traditional BI platform visualisation tools; I prefer more graphic design tools. But the look of the book held me back for a long time — it was a roadblock! I knew I wanted to create a visual book. I had this idea of a kids’ style book for adults, and that was a vision I couldn’t really get out of my head. I wanted it to be friendly when you pick it up. Some technical books can seem quite daunting, and people look at them and think, “that’s not for me,”. I wanted my book to be very accessible. I knew the visuals were going to play a big role but I just had no idea what they were going to look like; I didn’t have a style.

An illustrated boy plays with a bars from a bar chart tied up in a leash.
Another page with signature style graphics and clear take-out message.

I think it was at the end of 2022 – I had a conference that I was presenting at and thought, “I’m just going to experiment with a completely different look”. I designed those little people for the first time, and I got really good feedback on it! So, I thought, “okay, this is obviously resonating, I’m going to run with this”. I started creating them in a way that I could productionise them. As you know, there are a lot of little people and designs throughout that book, and I needed a way to make it easy for me to design. I created a bunch of different kinds of arms, different kinds of legs, different kinds of hair, and so on.

NR: What I like is that you say you want it to be not too daunting: it’s almost four hundred pages. It’s a lovely sized book, but you’ve made it in such a way that it’s really clear and readable on every page. You wanted it to be skimmable as well as readable from start to finish. Your introduction in the book even says, “feel free to jump around in this book.” It also says that’s the way you read books as well – to buy books with the hope of magically absorbing the content! I feel like you’ve achieved that really well. I’m also personally guilty of buying books which go on the shelf and I maybe don’t get round to reading them, but I keep picking your book up and reading more every time before putting it down; I feel like you’ve absolutely nailed the way that you wanted to do this. I had to almost make myself go back and read through from start to finish in order to fully read it for this chat. But it very much feels like every page or opposing pair of pages is like a learning point, like a leaflet or a slide that you might see.

KG: Oh good! That was very much an intentional design thing. I wanted it to be very skimmable because that’s how I read books. I wanted it to almost be like Instagram – you can look at a page and feel like you can just take what you need from that page. I wanted it to be shareable on social media and I’m hoping that happens.

NR: I’m sure it will – I shall be sharing my thoughts on social media, certainly! Who would you say is the typical audience for your book? 

KG: I’d like to say it’s a super general audience for anyone who needs to communicate data — and it will certainly help this audience! But I think I wrote this book specifically for people in analytics roles who are struggling to communicate their data outside of a dashboard. Typically, within large organisations there are lots of people doing analytics and they’re probably very skilled in designing dashboards, because that seems to be the default way of communicating data. But I think organisations are now asking for just that little more detail, that little bit more explanation. People in these roles are being told to “make your data tell a story”, and they might have no idea what that means. I wanted to have this, almost like a playbook, a handbook to say step-by-step, “this is how you do it; this is what it means”. That’s my particular audience group.

NR: I feel like there are parts of this book that are giving us those building blocks, those tools to find the story before telling it, because I think we’ve mentioned the importance of narrative and telling the story, but I feel sometimes there can be that gap where you don’t actually know what the story is, or how to find it, so I really like some of the tools and frameworks you’ve given us, your readers, in order to do that.

KG: Thank you! Yes, it’s trial and error, and it’s what I’ve learnt through running workshops and through doing this myself — just experimenting with what does work.

NR: How did you enjoy the book-writing process once you got started? Was it a lot more solitary than the workshops that you’ve been giving?

KG: Absolutely! But I’m an introvert, so I quite enjoyed the whole process of locking myself away and forcing myself to write. Some days were really hard! I think any writer, and you’ve probably experienced this as well, will know what writer’s block feels like – you just feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall trying to get something to come out. But most days were pretty good. I enjoyed switching between writing and design as I was doing both at the same time. So, if I was having more of a design day, I’d focus on the images. If I needed to think a lot about a subject, I’d say this is a writing day and drill down into the subject. I found it was a nice opportunity to go deeper into things that I thought I knew well. As a writer, you come out of the process as an expert, you don’t necessarily go in as an expert. Just having the opportunity to think deeper about what I was already teaching – I really enjoyed that process. It’s very different to running a workshop, where you’re “on” all day. Writing is very solitary.

NR: Yes, I love what you just said there – you don’t necessarily go in as an expert, but you come out as an expert. I think that’s something really encouraging to any people who might want to write a book. I certainly don’t feel like an expert on anything other than my own process, but that’s what I wrote about in my book. I felt I improved my understanding and got more clarity on the way I did things and my ideas just going through the process. It is actually a good way of learning yourself, and then passing on that learning to other people.

I for one will certainly be using a number of your methods when it comes to trying to teach data storytelling in my organisation. With that, actually, I’ve noticed you’ve made an awful lot of material and resources free and easily available to anyone who needs them. Can you remind me where that is – is that through your website?

KG: Yes – that’s all through my website, www.roguepenguin.co.nz. I wanted to make it easy for people. I didn’t want people to pay extra to get templates. If you buy the book, you should be able to create that data story and the process should be free of friction. I wanted to make it easy for people to do that.

NR: How did you come up with Rogue Penguin?!

KG: I always get asked this! 

NR: Sorry, it’s a completely random question! I mean a penguin, we love and associate with New Zealand, but why rogue? Was that because you were striking out on your own, I guess?

KG: Yes, a little bit. When I started the company, I was going through all this brainstorming – as you do when you’re trying to start a company – trying to figure out what works best. At the time, there were a whole lot of other companies that had “data” in their name. They were very technical-sounding and (I thought) kind of boring. So, I wanted to stand out from that. My idea of going out on my own was to do things differently. I wanted to shake things up a bit and so the word “rogue” really resonated in terms of what I wanted to do with the company. And “penguin”, yes we have loads of them in New Zealand, but it was also my daughter’s favourite book at the time; she was five. Every night I’d read her this book called Penguin. It was very meaningful at the time, and Rogue Penguin was born!

NR: Do you have one stand-out piece of advice from the book over anything else? Is there one overarching message that we can take from the book? 

KG: Yes, it’s to understand your data story before you try to tell it. A lot of what I see today in [air quotes] “data storytelling” is just data visualisation. It’s missing the story. But it’s hard to visualise a data story if you don’t know what it is. So, my big takeaway is to understand your message.

Understand the story you want to communicate because it’s then much easier to create visuals to support that narrative. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of what people are calling data storytelling.

NR: Yes, I agree, and there’s so much conversation about it. Even today, even this week, on any of the social platforms that you choose. I love the fact that data storytelling is the topic that everyone’s talking about, and in a way I don’t mind if people have slightly different interpretations of it, but I think more and more people have come round to the importance of data storytelling – I certainly have. Just as we were talking about earlier – to get that narrative, to help explain, and to help lead to those data-informed decisions.

KG: That’s it. Organisations these days have so much data that they need this translator role, which is where the data storytelling fits in. I think analysts who have gone through the analysis process are in the best position to tell the story of data or explain what it means. They shouldn’t shy away from being that person as that’s how they’re going to create impact with their analytical outputs — good communication is what’s missing.

NR You’re right, it’s so key, isn’t it? That’s why I feel this is so important. You’ve described yourself as an introvert earlier; I describe myself as an introvert, and probably most of us in the analyst world describe ourselves as introverts. These discussions and these tools that you’re helping bring to us in your workshops, and now your book, are what help us, the analysts, tell the crucial stories.

You can order Kat’s book on Amazon.

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