Storytelling With Data

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, a leading authority on effectively communicating with data, talks about why this is the next skill you need to add to your resume.

You don’t need data-visualization expert Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic to tell you that there’s a lot of data out there. “We have so much more data around us all the time than we have had historically,” she said. “And there’s this growing desire to want to make sense out of all of that data.”

But while technology has given us tools that allow almost anybody to enter information into a spreadsheet and create charts and graphs with relative ease, there’s a gap in knowledge about how to present the results in ways that make it easy for someone else to understand them—or that will help you make your point. “It’s funny,” Nussbaumer Knaflic said, “because when I think about the analytical process, you start off with a question, or you might have a hypothesis.” You spend a lot of time gathering and analyzing the data, then “just throw it in a graph and be done with it. But that graph’s the only part of the whole process that anyone else sees.”

A former manager at Google, Nussbaumer Knaflic now teaches other organizations and individuals how to tell a story with data. Although the skills are specialized, they’re ones that anyone can — and should — learn, she said. “I think anyone can improve their ability to get their point across and have an impact by learning how to communicate effectively with data.”

Nussbaumer Knaflic began her career as a bank analyst, and became interested in how data was presented as a creative outlet. “It started out by me just wanting to make things look pretty,” she said, “and as a way for me to be creative in a space not typically known for its creativity. But I was finding over time that as I paid more attention to the aesthetics of my graphs, other people paid more attention to them as well. I started to see the value of making data visual to help make it more accessible and understandable.”

After Nussbaumer Knaflic moved to Google, she was asked to create a course on data visualization. That gave her a chance to dig into the reasons why some of the things that she’d already discovered through trial and error were effective. “That was really where it started for me,” she said, “saying, ‘Hey, by visualizing this data, we can use it to get somebody’s attention, or maybe help make a smarter decision, or drive a better action.’”

At Google, Nussbaumer Knaflic also began to combine elements of storytelling with data visualization. “You can take data and if you make it visual, you can make it accessible,” she said. “But if you also don’t just show the data but make data a pivotal point in an over-arching story, you can use that story to make it something that your audience cares about. You can make it resonate with them. I think by having both effective data visualization and that story-telling piece, it really puts the person communicating in a powerful position for being able to make sure their point is heard.”

Nussbaumer Knaflic published her research and insights in the 2015 book Storytelling With Data. In the book and in her workshops, she offers advice including the following:

Graphic by Corin Hirsch

› Understand the context. Don’t start the presentation process by thinking about your data — start by thinking about your audience. “Too often,” Nuss-baumer Knaflic said, “we communicate for our data or for our project without ever pausing to think about the person on the receiving end of it.”

› Choose the right visual. Pie charts may be a popular way to present
data, but Nussbaumer Knaflic isn’t a fan. “Pie charts are evil,” she writes in Storytelling With Data. That’s because the human eye isn’t very good at see-ing differences in quantities in two-dimensional space, particularly if there are a number of similar values. A better choice often is a horizontal bar chart—the format that Nussbaumer Knaflic says would be her go-to if she were forced to pick just one.

› Eliminate clutter. People can only keep about four chunks of visual information in their short-term memories at a given time, according to Nussbaumer Knaflic. Everything that you add to a graph increases the cognitive load on your audience, so work to identify elements—including borders, grids, and labels — that aren’t adding value, and eliminate them. You can also make graphs easier to read by using white space and making sure elements are aligned.

› Focus your audience’s attention. Use things like size and color to focus attention and send cues about what’s important. For example, if you’re showing multiple things that are roughly of the same importance, size them similarly. Don’t use color just to be colorful, but use it to highlight the most important parts of your visual.

› Tell a story. Stories stick with us in ways that data doesn’t, Nussbaumer Knaflic writes. She advises clients to articulate the one big idea they want to communicate, then create a three-minute-long story about it, with a beginning, middle, and end. Use that to create a narrative flow and help you sequence your presentation slides.




Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.