REVIEW: Cole Knaflic’s Storytelling with You: Plan, Create and Deliver a Stellar Presentation

We have all been on the receiving end of bad presentations. Slide decks with too much text, cluttered data visualizations and presenters who read from notes without eye contact. Far too often, the data that we clean, analyze and visualize fails to create a lasting impact due to a lackluster presentation to relevant stakeholders. 

In response to this persistent challenge, Cole Knaflic’s new book Storytelling with You provides a detailed roadmap for how to plan, create and deliver stellar presentations. Broken into three parts, the book begins with the planning process, with a particular focus on tailoring the presentation to our target audience and identifying the critical storyline. The second part dives into the creation of presentation slides with the inclusion of written and visual content. The final part highlights the actual presentation delivery with insightful tips and tricks on how to be an effective presenter. 

Presenting effectively often requires a paradigm shift. After spending weeks or months deep in the weeds on a data project, it is most natural to design a presentation that mirrors the process that we took, from hypothesis testing, to methodology and findings. Storytelling with You challenges this traditional approach and encourages presenters to reflect on their audience’s needs, interests and frame of reference. How might we align the data-informed insights that we are presenting with decision points that our audience is considering?

Text reading: What should my audience do? When you are getting ready to communicate, identify what you want others to do—a specific action they should follow. The action itself can take many different forms. It could be a discussion, options to weigh, an idea to respond to, or a decision to make. This is an area in which presentations often fall short. We spend a great deal of time putting together content and taking our audience through masses of information without ever thinking about what we want them to actually do. What specific activity will your hard work inform? If you can't clearly articulate the action, you should consider whether you need to communicate in the first place.
Excerpt from Storytelling with You

Another key point from the planning process that Cole Knaflic highlights is the importance of ordering our presentations into a storytelling structure. The three key elements of plot, twist and ending serve as the foundation for any good story and should similarly underpin our presentations. Through the use of instructive worksheets and case studies, Cole provides readers with detailed instruction on how to make this paradigm shift towards audience-centric storytelling presentations.

For the creation process, we often assume that when we create and showcase our data visualizations, the insights will naturally appear to the audience who will interpret the data in the same way as we intended. Storytelling With You challenges this assumption and encourages its readers to explicitly identify the insights from the data using words. Intentionally weaving together data-informed insights into a narrative maximizes our chances of creating lasting impact from our presentations.

The book concludes with recommendations on how to improve our presentation skills through the delivery process. Carefully planned presentations with beautifully curated content can still fail to achieve their desired impact if the delivery of the presentation falls short. Two practical tips that Cole expounds on in this section are the importance of regular practice and confidence building.

Text reading: Shouldn't the data speak for itself? The instruction to put data into words runs counter to the misguided notion that data speaks for itself. Sure, a graph can speak for itself, but without our help, it runs the risk of saying something different to each person who looks at it! When you are the person who is communicating data, you are in a singular position to help others derive greater value from that data. You likely know it better than anyone else. It is your job to convey that understanding and the viewpoint you have developed based on it. Don't ask your audience to undertake this work. Note that this doesn't mean others will necessarily agree with you, but it sets the best stage for understanding and a productive conversation. Put your data into words!
Excerpt from Storytelling with You

Effective presentations allow us to share data-driven insights with relevant stakeholders that drives change and creates lasting impact. Storytelling with You is a must-read for anyone interested in improving the way in which they communicate information, engage with their audience, and use data to tell compelling stories.

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Program Manager, City Innovation and Data at National League of Cities | pine@nlc.org

Joshua works on the Urban Innovation team at the National League of Cities (NLC) where he leads the organization’s data visualization portfolio. He specializes in leveraging data to inform local policymaking and in amplifying best practices through data storytelling. Based in Cincinnati OH, he is an electric bike enthusiast and passionate advocate for active transportation.