Cue the Data Storytellers: The Data Industry’s Next Big Stars

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Data storytelling has kicked around for years at the edges of the business intelligence industry. But now that a handful of vendors seem poised to shove it under the spotlight, its big break may come. Data storytelling could be the data industry’s next big star.

It comes onto the stage as if cued by the question left dangling, unanswered by the previous big star, big data. Big data just wasn’t ready for the biggest question, “So what?” Data storytelling is made to answer it.

Data storytelling, done well, draws audiences in with its animal magnetism. It’s a natural. No wonder it’s held center stage since our earliest camp fires.

Not even visualized data connects so well. Data stories combine data with soul, personality, subjective judgment — the raw human elements with more influence than data by itself. At their best, stories stimulate conversation and then go on to be told and retold.

Inevitably, the spotlight that promotes also exploits. Just watch for the redundant, quixotic talk about definitions, such as to distinguish a data story from a mere narrative. No one will heed the answers, least of all the people in marketing. You’ll see “data story” slapped onto absolutely everything as a prescription for anything. Every conference, every research paper, even the swag will all claim a piece of it no matter what the actual content may be.

Then there will be the legitimate data stories that set a low standard. One was a highly praised data “story” produced by the New York Times. A series of annotated bar charts show rising death rates among motorcyclists without helmets. It’s interesting data. But frankly, I’m unmoved by it. It’s a “story” in that it’s relevant and important, which satisfies the journalism standard, and I can imagine the narrative behind it: smart laws were turned back by other interests.

To fulfill the greatest promise of data storytelling, or any story, it should do more. The data story I’d like to see has another, warmer layer that tells of just a few unlucky motorcyclists, maybe just one, to represent the hundreds. We don’t connect to crowds, we connect to individuals within the crowds. I need to need to imagine a real person. He talked about “living free,” I might imagine, but he ended up cracking his head open on a curb.

Good stories connect with emotion, surprise, concrete imagery, and narrative. Many books have gone into this, such as “Writing for Story” by Jon Franklin, “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud, and the relatively recent “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers.

The best of the data storytellers will add to what they already know by looking into storytelling’s rich legacy for inspiration and technique — including genres that have never been mentioned with data in the same breath.

Folk songs, for one. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s “912 Greens” starts out with adventure and ends in the comfort of community. Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” tells about rejecting discomfort for the chance of something better. Listeners “play” phrases in their minds long afterward.

Great art combines vivid images with “schema,” generic story bits that the artist assumes we know. Michelangelo did it in his depiction of David and Goliath in the Sistine Chapel. David’s slingshot may have only knocked Goliath down, the depiction suggests. David had to finish him off with a sword — which is vividly portrayed raised above the giant’s neck. The story lives, especially among tech startups.

Even gossip in a newspaper column. The famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen told them every day, such as the one about the jaunty young woman in the Thunderbird convertible stopped by the California Highway Patrol. My father recalled hearing it repeated for a week afterward.

What good is data if it can’t shape a story and inspire conversation? Vivid, personal images, infused with emotion and surprise, all bring data to life.

Now that data’s coming alive, it’s about to find new popularity. When the data industry’s next big star strides onto the big screen, in fact, we might be surprised to see who else is there already. Data storytellers from business will bump into journalists and who knows who else. Imagine the implications. This story has just begun.

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