Start with the Hero, Not the Story

To do a better job with data, take a moment to define your hero. Kat Greenbrook advises data analysts to start with the who, not the story. Her advice will strike a chord with any creative person—they often begin with a hero in mind. Creative people wonder what obstacles their  protagonist might face. What makes her act heroically? What is his mission? The data nerd in you might recoil: “I’m a scientist, not a creative writer.” Wrong. If you work with data, you need to think like an artist. Artists start by thinking about their hero.

Kat proposes a framework that can help you find and define your hero. As part of this framework, you should ask yourself three key questions:

  1. Am I trying to discover insights for myself?
  2. Am I trying to inform others?
  3. Am I trying to educate others?

When the hero is you, your job is to find a story. 

When you’re discovering insights for yourself, you’re like a detective, using data to find the story behind the facts. As you search, you compose new questions. But you’re not working with physical evidence, your job is to find your clues in graphs, charts, and tables. As you search, new questions emerge. As you collect, collate, refine, revisit, and organize facts, patterns appear. That pattern is the back-beat of your story. 

Once your discovery is done, and you find your story arc, you have a story to tell. 

When you’re informing others, present facts.

When your hero is somebody else such as a client that needs information, your job is to supply the facts, not tell a story. You’re Agent M, feeding James Bond information along his way. Bond, James Bond, is on the Hero’s Journey. In business, James Bond is the project manager who needs a Gantt chart, the sales manager who needs a pipeline breakdown, or the CFO who needs a cash flow statement. 

When you’re educating others, you’re a storyteller.

When your hero is hapless, helpless, or naive, you must become a storyteller. Your job is to change hearts and minds. You must: 

  • Find a story (return to Hero #1)
  • Choose visualizations that create “aha” moments
  • Find vivid words for annotations
  • Select compelling colors, callouts, and comparisons
  • Write titles that stick
  • And so on

Like writing a book, storytelling with data is grinding, detail-oriented, and sometimes thankless work. I changed the title of this article ten times — is it the best one, the one that will stick? I’m still not sure and tortured that there’s a better one.

You’re on a Hero’s Journey, too.

Whichever path you’re on, you’re on a Hero’s Journey, too. As you stumble through ideas, you discover what you’re trying to say. As you explore, you enlighten yourself so that you might enlighten others. As Issac Asimov said, “writing is thinking with my fingers.” The same holds for you when you work with data. 

You’re on a Hero’s Journey when you’re a data storyteller. You’re out to change your hero’s mind. And you’re on the journey together. 

Mark Palmer is the former CEO of StreamBase systems and head of products and engineering for TIBCO. He’s the co-author of “10 Things to Know About ModelOps,” World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, and one of CDO Magazine’s Leading Voices in Data. He serves on the advisory Data Visualization Society.