4 storytelling techniques to bring your data to life

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Every day, decisions are made using massive amounts of data. These numbers-driven insights influence many things in the world around us — like airplane and train schedules, special promotions offered by retailers, or the price we pay for electricity. Most jobs these days rely on data in some way, yet it’s easy to forget that humans themselves are the source of that data. Every time someone boards a flight, makes a purchase in a store, or flips off a light switch, they contribute to the statistics that shape decisions made by organizations.

To guide your organization’s decision-making, you need to find a story in the data that’s understandable and relatable to people. At the core of every story is a likable hero who encounters roadblocks, which makes the audience root for them to succeed. When you include stories about the people behind the numbers, you’ll give the data more meaning and motivate decision-makers to act.

You can use four storytelling techniques to shed light on challenges and opportunities in your data. First, find the people in the data (known in storytelling as the “hero” and “adversary”). Then speak with those people to learn as much as you can about them, especially the conflicts they’re facing. Finally, communicate that information along with important context that helps decision-makers see the larger pattern in the data and make sense of it.

Identify the hero and adversary

The first step to gaining insight is to understand the individuals whose actions are behind the numbers. These data-generating people are the characters in your story. For businesses, heroes could be employees, customers, or partners who interact with your organization in various ways.


For instance, imagine that the head of marketing for a fast-growing chain of retail coffee shops noticed that sales dropped by 40% in the last quarter. To uncover the cause, she must find out more about the people behind the numbers and determine how she can motivate that “hero” to turn things around.

As she digs into the data, the marketing head sees that new buyers have been visiting their coffee shops in greater numbers, which makes her heart glad. But the company’s loyal repeat customers have been visiting less often than in the past, and spending less, too. Their most faithful coffee fans must be running into a barrier, or adversary, that’s tamping down their spend. What could it be? Now she’s got a data storytelling challenge on her hands.

Talk with the people behind the data

Data can’t speak for itself — it needs a data storyteller to be its voice. To understand why the numbers are what they are, talk with the people who are producing the data. You can gain insights by visiting online forums, reading results from customer surveys, or by consulting with outside professionals who understand your market.

But the most effective way to learn about people is to speak with them directly. Identify some individuals who can serve as your data heroes and reach out to interview them directly. Ask them about their goals, pain points, motivators, and blockers. And really listen to what they have to say, with an open mind. You’ll discover things no spreadsheet could tell you.

For example, the marketing leader for that coffee chain could interview a random sampling of repeat customers from a few different store locations. She might be surprised to learn that the drop in sales was likely caused by a recent change her team made to the company’s mobile app. The new, and supposedly improved, loyalty rewards notification feature made it harder for existing customers to see special offers, so they had less incentive to buy on the fly. But through the course of her interviews, the marketing leader learned about another feature her loyal customers really wanted in the app. Talking to real people will reveal both obstacles and opportunities in the data that need to be addressed.

Name the conflict and how to solve it

In every story, the hero faces a conflict. It could be interpersonal conflict, like clashing with another character in the story who gets in the way of their goal. Sometimes the protagonist is at war with a group of people or an entire system that’s corrupt or broken.

The same thing can happen to humans in a business setting. The heroes in your data could be a sales team that’s in conflict with other people, like reps from competing companies who are calling on their accounts. Or the heroes could be customers who conflict with a flawed system, like an outdated software application. A hero can also have conflict within themselves, such as a CEO who starts to doubt his recommendations when he feels nervous about making a major ask of his board.

It’s important to identify any conflicts that your hero is up against so you can include that context in your data storytelling. That information will help decision-makers identify what exactly they can do to help the hero get unstuck.

Provide context to decision-makers

Data points don’t exist in a bubble. When you include context about how the data has evolved, you’ll shape a big-picture story that reveals even more insights about heroes and adversaries and how you can move them forward.

Returning to the scenario of the coffee chain, the marketing leader could choose to show her team only the data from the past quarter’s revenue dip. That, coupled with anecdotes from her customer interviews, would surely light a fire that gets them to fix the notifications feature fast. But she also wants to motivate her team to prioritize other features that’d increase sales quickly, so she could instead zoom out to show how revenue increases correlated with some other past app updates, so they see their positive impact on the business, too.

Remember, it’s people that move data in a positive direction, so you’ll need to build data-driven storytelling skills to bring their tales to life. Every statistic, pie chart, or line graph can tell a heroic story. By understanding the people behind the numbers, recognizing their conflicts, and providing context, you help decision-makers make a meaningful connection to issues and opportunities in the data. Telling a data story that humanizes numbers will equip and empower your organization’s leaders (and you) to make changes that move the company forward.

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A version of this article originally appeared in MIT SMR.

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