I don’t have the pretense of knowing the exact formula of what piques an audience’s interest. Some of my data stories were successful to an extent I would have never expected, some weren’t. From my experience, a story that resonates within you will also resonate to your audience. My advice would be to build your visuals to sustain your story, and not the other way around. A nice or weird chart can raise your audience’s interest and make them stop one second, but by telling a data story, you will captivate them to a much higher level and keep them interested until the end.
The fundamentals of capturing the audience’s interest
As a storyteller, you need to create a strong emotion to strengthen the link with your reader. That way, your story will catch your audience’s interest and they will be so invested in that story that they will continue to read it. There are several ways to create that emotional connection, including design and story flow. These elements need to work together: A good design definitely attracts the reader, but if the story or analysis is empty, the reader will not get involved or stay interested until the end.
Maybe you recall the story of 1001 Nights, where the heroine, Shéhérazade, tells a story every night to the Sultan, but stops in the middle of the intrigue when the dawn comes, leaving him wanting more. (Because the Sultan, disappointed by his previous spouse, used to kill every new bride at the break of dawn, Sheherazade certainly adopted a smart strategy). Maybe we don’t need to reach such extremes (the stakes, in our case, are not so high), but we still need to create some kind of emotion to connect with our readers at a deeper level, and make them continue wanting more or remembering our data story.
The importance of connecting at a deeper level
What gets the reader interested is often a gut reaction, also known as visceral level of processing (according to design expert Don Norman). It is quite simple: You either like what you see or you don’t. If you like what you see, you will naturally dive deeper into it. If you don’t, you will push it aside for as long as possible until you are really forced to have a look at it (which is usually what I do with the tasks that bore me).
Let’s take a simple example. When you have a magazine in your hands, like for instance the latest issue of Nightingale, how do you pick the article to read first? Do you start from page one and read until the end? Or do you first browse the entire magazine until a title or visual catches your eyes and pulls you in to start reading? Sometimes, without even realizing it, we are “victims” of this visceral level of processing.
Another parallel can be made with advertisements. When a publicist wants to sell a product, they will try to touch the target consumer with any kind of emotion: make them smile, laugh, cry…feel anything other than indifference, so they remember the product and end up buying it at a later stage. Why? Because that emotional impact puts your interaction with the product into your long-term memory. You may forget the brand name of the product but not the feeling or emotion it creates. For data visualization, it’s best to design in a way that communicates a feeling, as it will be remembered.
We have to be aware of this aspect to be able to keep an open mind and be able to push new ideas in our stakeholders’ minds. When designing business dashboards containing new visuals, the first reaction of my stakeholders is often rejection. The reason may be that they are not familiar with it, they don’t know how to use it, or that we haven’t yet created this sparkle of curiosity in them. That is why I often explain the benefits of the new dashboard and give them some time to play with it before even collecting any feedback.
When I publish a data story, what I am wishing for is to connect with other people. I want to intrigue them or simply make them smile while sharing a strange discovery or a fun fact. According to Don Norman, you need to create a pleasurable experience for any product you design, whether it is a coffee machine or a business dashboard. I tend to agree, and I am trying to use these principles in my work or my personal project.
Some time ago, I discovered a version of the following chart about air pollution and its evolution across time.
By the simplicity of the color scheme, and its intriguing pattern, it appealed immediately to me. Because it surprised me, I immediately started reading the visualization and spent a long time going through it.
Because this visualization intrigued me so much, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for several weeks. And I thought that it would be a nice challenge for myself to recreate this chart in Tableau, but using a different dataset. Not only would I be challenged to generate the mathematical coordinates necessary to draw it, but also to attract the reader’s attention on a subject that matters. I came across a military dataset that has similar characteristics to the air pollution dataset, as they both describe a long period of time across different countries, for which the phenomenon is not homogenous. Here is how my version turned out:
We immediately see that China and the US are outliers in terms of military expenses. Of course, we need a “how to read it” box explaining how to read the chart, but if your curiosity is piqued, you will make the effort to understand that the evolution lines go clocklike as they deviate from the origin point, and that the blue triangles indicate a reduction of the military expenses (which in my view is a good thing) compared to the previous year (and red triangle represents an increase). I also added the possibility for the user to drill down into the other countries and zoom in, which didn’t exist in the original piece.
But it could have been a line chart, right?
Yes of course it could have been a line chart, and it should have been a line chart in a business environment. The first version of this analysis used a line chart, but it was barely seen (based on the views on Tableau Public) and nobody mentioned to me that they found the analysis interesting nor that it created the awareness about the preponderance of US and China’s military expenses. This is because the line chart did not conjure an emotion, so it didn’t pique people’s interest or make them stop and engage with it.
Remember Florence Nightingale ?
Her most famous chart (above), known as the Nightingale’s rose, highlights the number of unnecessary deaths during the Crimean War as a result of preventable infections that could have been controlled by a variety of factors including proper nutrition, ventilation, and shelter. This coxcomb graph created in 1858 had a huge impact during its presentation. But the reality is that Nightingale tried to present this data in 1857 with a more “traditional” approach, with bars, but it didn’t make an impact until the data was presented as a rose.
If it was true for the beginning of the 19th century, it is definitely relevant for our digital world, where everything competes to catch our attention. If you want to generate some interest and create some consciousness, you need an impactful visual.
Put your heart on the table
I have also designed some visualizations as a catharsis of my own emotions. When my dog died, I created a visualization to celebrate the courage of the most courageous animals. I will probably never know if this one stirs emotion among my readers, but it helps me to process my own emotions.
But I know that the story didn’t really reach my audience, and if I am being honest, the visualization did not present the story I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about my dog, and his fight to live another day. I was monitoring his pain level and his mood to be able to decide when the time would come, but I lacked courage to tell this story and visualize it, because it was too painful to me. So I did this visualization instead, and even if it is nice, it is not as impactful the original idea was.
I often vizzed about animal stories, to bring awareness to their extraordinary achievements, such as Jimmy the Raven crow (who had a 20-year long career as an actor in American movies between the 1930s and 1950s or Brinzola (a vulture that traveled 3,000 km in 25 days). But I can see clearly that I had just created curiosity for myself with those stories without really touching my audience, and few people remember them. Of course it is not about the animals’ stories, which are remarkable, but about my own failed attempts to convey them.
But from time to time, I design a visual story that people remember, because it made them smile, and touched them deeper than I would have ever imagined. The following visualization is my biggest hit in Tableau Public with 12,000 views (modest success compared to very talented authors but still considerable for me). The visual below is about the final destination of a little mouse. In a nutshell, a little mouse asked me to do a risk assessment analysis on the European countries, so she could decide where she would feel safe and most enjoy the food.
When I created this story, I only had a few Tableau skills, but it didn’t matter, because the story was touching. To my surprise, a journalist at an Italian newspaper took up my story and wrote an article about it. Did I expect such an impact? Certainly not, but as I designed my story I was crying and praying that my sense of humor and my ideas would be accepted by the data community…and it worked. I found my tribe on that day, even if my expectation was just to have fun, and somehow I transmitted this emotion. It was fresh and unexpected.
You never know what reaction or emotion you will have to others, so be true to yourself, and put your heart on the table the next time you viz; that is the only way to truly connect with others and with yourself.
After having led successfully team of data experts of different sizes and locations for the past fifteen years, Annabelle uses her skills and passion to drive Visual Best Practices adoption in her company. She considers data visualization and analytics her ikigai (purpose) and enjoys fostering a community of practitioners in every organization she works. Annabelle is specialized in Visuals Analytics and mastering Tableau (both Desktop and Server). She holds a Tableau Desktop Certified Professional certification and was recognized as a Tableau Visionary and Social Media Ambassador. In her free time, she co-leads Data + Women Zurich and the Tableau Analytics User Group.