How to Use Storytelling Conventions to Create Better Visualizations

Story is the best form of communication we have. To the steely-eyed analyst, it may seem superfluous and manipulative — a way to persuade with emotion instead of facts. While it is true that some have used story to mislead and befuddle, to discard it altogether is like blaming shoes for an inability to dunk a basketball. Stories aren’t the problem; false stories are. The goal of the analyst, then, is not to avoid stories, but to tell better ones.

Not only is story an effective way to communicate, for the data analyst it is unavoidable, because every presentation of data tells a story whether it is intended or not. If the story isn’t made explicit, the audience will make one up. Take the ubiquitous tabular report as an example…

Story: I’m not sure what any of this means but I did work really hard to collect all the data.

A visualization project doesn’t succeed by accident. Behind every one is a developer who has mastered the data, the subject matter, and the user stories. No one understands the content better than she does. By comparison, the audience’s vantage point is limited. If left to their own devices, chances are good that they will miss important insights or draw incorrect conclusions.

Given that, there is no better person than the visualization developer to provide a point of view on what the data means. If the audience is looking for a story, then it is incumbent on the developer to guide them to the one that is most meaningful while staying true to the data. For a visualization to succeed, the developer must own the role of storyteller.

The story framework

Stories are about ideas. A particular story might be about a detective figuring out who did it, or survivors fighting off a zombie apocalypse, but underneath the fictional facade is a point of view about life. The combination of setting, characters, events, and tension is simply a metaphor about real-world ideas that matter — and are true. The genius of story is that it doesn’t tell you an idea is important; it shows you. When done well, its outcomes seem inevitable and its conclusions are convincing. Few methods can match a great story’s ability to enlighten and persuade.

To accomplish this, stories typically follow a framework, or narrative arc, that looks like this…

  1. A relatable protagonist whose world is in balance
  2. crisis that knocks their world out of balance making the status quo unacceptable
  3. journey to restore balance that faces progressively escalating opposition
  4. climax where the protagonist must decide to risk everything in order find balance once again

You can see how this plays out in a couple of great movies from the ‘80s…

In The Karate Kid, A high schooler named Daniel moves to California with his mom and is doing reasonably well at making new friends (balance), when a bully with a cool red leather jacket and sweet karate moves decides to make Daniel his target (crisis). Daniel is determined to learn karate to defend himself and finds Mr. Miyagi to train him (journey). In the end, Daniel must overcome the bully in a final battle royale for all to witness (climax).

In Back to the Future, Marty is a normal kid trying to take his girlfriend to the prom, and also happens to be friends with a mad scientist who discovers time travel (balance). A string of events leads Marty to accidentally travel back in time to when his parents first met, and threatens his future existence by allowing his mom to become enamored with him instead of his dad (crisis). Marty then has to orchestrate events so that his mom and dad fall in love (journey), and then get back to the present time using the power from a clock tower struck by lightning (climax).

The beauty of this framework is that it takes advantage of a characteristic we all share as humans: the need for order and balance. When something threatens that need, the tension causes us to direct all of our mental, emotional, and physical capacities toward restoring that balance. Sitting idle is not an option; action must be taken.

A visualization can likewise use this framework to present information in a more persuasive and compelling way. If a report states facts simply because they exist with no concern for what they mean, then a visualization shows the facts that matter, when they matter, to whom they matter, and what can be done about it. Knowing that a user will act when he believes the status quo is untenable and understands what he can do about it, an effective visualization focuses on the facts that reveal meaningful tension and provide a guided path to the appropriate actions.

Let’s look at how each part of the framework applies to visualization design…

Scope depth over breadth

“A relatable protagonist whose world is in balance”

Storytellers understand who their audience is and what they care about, which enables them to create relatable protagonists and a clear picture of what a balanced and desirable life looks like. Good storytellers go deep, not wide. They limit the number of characters and the breadth of the created world to only what can be known intimately.

If visualization is a form of storytelling, then the audience is its protagonist and the setting its analytical scope. A successful visual creates a world its audience will immediately recognize as their own, with familiar terminology, organization, and concepts of favorable conditions. Its scope favors depth over breadth. It does not waste space on extraneous topics just because the data is available or previous reports included them, but instead focuses solely on the problem it set out to solve, and solves only that.

Exception-based visual cues

“A crisis that knocks the protagonist’s world out of balance making the status quo unacceptable”

Crisis is the driving force of a story. Without it there is no action, and without action there is no story. If the protagonist lives in a world where everything is as it should be, then why would she do anything to change that? Minor annoyances or moderately-challenging setbacks might lead her to make adjustments, but that doesn’t make for a compelling story. What is compelling is when an event threatens the very essence of life as she knows it. When that happens, action is not optional; it’s a matter of survival.

A visualization is likewise defined by action — consequential action, more to the point. Its aim is to convince the viewer that the status quo is unacceptable and that action is mandatory. In the same way a story uses crisis as an impetus for action, a visualization makes crises jump off the screen and compels the viewer to act. It does not allow minor issues to clutter the view, but rather it focuses squarely on the things that will dramatically damage the current state if left unaddressed.

In the business world it’s common to see a report full of performance KPIs like sales this year vs the previous year, or market share of a company vs a competitor. In far too many cases, every positive and negative variation is highlighted with green or red like the left side of the chart above. While it succeeds in looking like a Christmas tree, it fails at helping the viewer understand what truly matters. In reality only a few KPI variances have meaningful implications for the overall health of a business, which are called exceptions. An effective visualization is clear on which exceptions impact performance the most, and displays them front and center.

Progressively-revealed detail

“A journey to restore balance that faces progressively escalating opposition”

Every story is a journey. They are sometimes about the protagonist literally getting from point A to point B, but they are always about the protagonist’s journey of personal transformation. No good story leaves its characters how it found them. It may seem that all is well at the beginning of a story, but a major crisis exposes how vulnerable they are. The narrative arc is not about recovering what the crisis took away; it’s about the protagonist growing into a better version of themselves that they didn’t realize was possible before. And just like in real life, it doesn’t happen with one transformational event, but progressively over the course of many events with each one requiring a little more than the one before it. The heroism that’s always required in the final act would not be possible in act one. It’s the journey in the middle that makes it possible.

While a visualization does not usually demand heroic acts from its users, it does concede that they need to go on a journey involving several stages of analysis before they’re ready to act. Few real-world problems are so simple that a single KPI or view could clarify the severity of a situation or the appropriate response. Decision-makers want to go through a progression that starts with high-level performance questions and then move on to increasingly-detailed questions until a specific opportunity for action is identified. The job of a visualization is to simply mirror this progression.

Actionable conclusions

“A climax where the protagonist must decide to risk everything in order find balance once again”

In the narrative arc of a story, the protagonist’s transformation is only complete once he irreversibly turns away from who he once was and embraces his new self. Every event, character, decision, and action in the story builds to the moment at the end where he makes a final decision and takes the required action. In a well-crafted story, the end seems inevitable because every previous moment logically led to it, one step at a time.

In the same way, a visualization builds toward a final, decisive action from its users. Every choice about what, how, and where to show information is made with this end in mind. Common tabular reports provide information and nothing more. A better visualization provides the necessary insight for making decisions. To do this well, a visualization designer learns what type of information her user base needs for better decision-making, and then figures out how to sequence visuals so that her users can intuitively get to that information as quickly as possible.

As a visualization developer, it’s tempting to focus on developing technical skills. The list of database types, languages, and visualization tools is ever-expanding and there’s obvious value in mastering many of them. However, few people have mastered the critical skill of storytelling. Those that do are highly valued and sought-after — even those with average technical skills.

A great next step for someone who wants to go deeper is to read what the master storytellers say about the topic. If you need a place to start, read Story by Robert McKee. Aside from being an enjoyable read, his framework for screenwriting parallels data visualization in a way that is insightful and inspiring. There are, of course, many great resources on the topic, so pick one and invest in becoming a better storyteller. Your visualizations will always tell a story, so why not master the skill of telling the best one possible?

Dan is the practice leader for Visual Analytics at Aspirent Consulting. He has over 15 years of experience in finance, business analytics, and visualization working with Fortune 500 companies including The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, IHG, and Mattel.