Picture This: 5 Steps to Master the Art of Data Storytelling

February 1, 2018

[paul taylor]
[paul taylor]

We’ve heard many times that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but do you know why?

The fact that we remember pictures better than words, a phenomenon called the “picture-superiority effect,” was first reported in the 19th century. Understanding this basic human dynamic is crucial for professional communicators because it means that people comprehend data faster when it’s displayed in charts and graphs than when they have to pore through spreadsheets or read long reports.

Why data visualization is important

In the time since the picture-superiority effect was first discovered, we have come to understand that our brains grasp, process and retain pictures with much greater meaning than numbers or words alone.

Let’s say a PR director is trying to explain why she wants to devote more of her budget to mobile and digital communications, for example. Her boss is a fan of traditional media, and questions her decision. She needs data to support her position. She could tell her boss that a recent InfoTrends report showed the continuing decline of print in favor of digital media and that this trend is also evident in PR and marketing budgets. But she would make her point more persuasively by presenting a slide that displayed the trends in analog versus digital print with an accompanying verbal narrative.

Why you shouldn’t torture your data

Important stories live in data, and our job is to discover and share them. There are many different ways to analyze and interpret data, however, and not all of them yield trustworthy conclusions. As the late Ronald H. Coase, an author and economics professor at The University of Chicago Law School, once said, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” As communications professionals, we have to avoid bias in our analyses.

It’s equally important to express ourselves in ways that people will understand and retain, in order to gain their collaboration and support. And nothing builds collaboration like storytelling. Stories let you answer the questions you have as a marketer — and your boss’s questions, too: What is working and what is not working? Did we succeed? And why?

By mastering the following concepts, you can generate the best visuals and create the most compelling data stories:

1. Use visuals that convey information in the simplest form for your audience.

Words and numbers are visually sparse, as the letters are usually presented in one color (black) using a common font, with no visual distinctiveness. And if it’s hard to remember undifferentiated characters, how difficult is it to remember numbers? To help make metrics and numbers more meaningful and memorable, marketers and statisticians have been using data visualization for years, communicating information with graphic elements such as points, lines or bars.

2. Determine the type of graphics that will best communicate your information.

Pie charts are good for showing large differences in proportions among a small data set, while bar charts are more visually precise and can accommodate larger data sets. Line charts do a great job of illustrating changes over time. Just remember that small changes can be misinterpreted or exaggerated in line charts without a well-proportioned X/Y axis.

3. Know your audience and how they process visual information, and then create a story that follows this template.

  • Repeat the most important takeaway from your presentation. State it first in the introduction, then again in the body of the presentation, and one more time in the summary slide.
  • As studios do for movies, create a trailer that previews what’s coming for the audience. If your big fact is really compelling, why make them wait until the last five minutes of your presentation to hear about it? Tell them upfront, and then spend the rest of your presentation explaining how you got there.
  • Use the power of three. Remember the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Musketeers? Sets of three create brevity, rhythm and patterns.

4. Keep it simple.

If you have to spend more than 30 seconds explaining a slide or a chart, it isn’t working.

5. Help your audience understand why the data matters.

Don’t simply report a bunch of metrics and numbers. Or as author and public speaker Avinash Kaushik so graphically puts it, “Do not puke out your data.” Take the time to understand the data and interpret it for your audience to find what really matters. Save the details for the inevitable follow-up meeting.


Be careful not to go overboard. Here are some of the biggest mistakes and excesses that I see when marketers present visual stories from data:

  • Death by PowerPoint: Too many slides, or too much information on each one, overwhelm the audience and bury your points. Don’t show more than one slide every two minutes. For added impact, combine slides with your spoken narrative.
  • Too showy: Too much animation or pizzazz diminishes the value of the data you present. Strive for purity and simplicity.
  • The infographic that killed the whale: Taking every data point you can imagine and turning them into one long infographic is counterproductive. No one wants to see infographics that can’t be viewed on one horizontal slide.

As a PR professional you sometimes have to communicate with people who are not well-versed in statistics and numbers or may be unfamiliar with PR techniques and metrics. Take the time to understand what the data means. Make sure that you can explain to your audience what it is telling you and what actions they can take based on the story that the data is telling you.

Good communicators bring good results, but great PR professionals are great communicators and earn great results. By mastering the art of data visualization, you can build trust, respect and credibility to better collaborate with your peers, colleagues and boss. 

Cyndi W. Greenglass

Cyndi W. Greenglass is senior vice president of strategic solutions for Diamond Communication Solutions. She is a 2017 winner of the Sales Lead Management Association’s Top-10 most inspiring people in sales lead management, and a 2016 honoree as one of the Top-20 women to watch in lead management. Greenglass is also an instructor at West Virginia University in its Data Marketing Communications Master of Science program.


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