March 1, 2018, by Erik Larson

The Art of a Simple Data Story

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
- Mark Twain

We love this quote for both its humor and its truth. What is so hard about getting our point across in few words?

Speaking for myself, a certain anxiety begins to set in as I set to choosing my words with economy and careful deliberation... now that you mention it, I'm feeling that anxiety right now! :)

With data, telling a simple narrative is even more challenging. There are too many temptations to pile on charts and widgets – pretty to the eye – that are unessential to the story. Read on to find a couple pointers to help you pare it all down.

3 Steps to a Simple Data Story

STEP 1 Identify Audience

Many people tend to overlook this step but we think it is the most important one. Without a clear articulation who we are trying to reach, we almost certainly will miss the mark in our communication content and style.

  1. Be specific: which audience category are you trying to reach?
  2. Use personas: what attributes does an individual reader have? For more on creating user personas check out this article.
  3. Choose the words: what vocabularly or jargon does your persona tend to use? This is a simple trick that helps a lot in communicating!

STEP 2 Create a Storyboard

This is a fun part! Just like a filmmaker will mock-up her storyline before fleshing it all out, you should to. It provides a map which will be useful as you get into the weeds on data, etc. Use the back of an napkin or a whiteboard for this step – there is no need to be fancy! Here are the main components to consider:

  1. Building blocks what are the key takeaways needed for the specific audience?
  2. Aligning to strategy how does the story tie directly into your organization's strategic plan?
  3. Choosing the data: what data points are needed to back it up? Notice that this step came last. Many people jump right into the data, but we strongly recommend letting the first steps dictate the data requirements.

STEP 3 Build!

With our audience and communication style nailed down, our story roadmap in place, we are ready to make our story come alive! There are three parts to this:

  1. Collect data: data is now available on government open data portals like never before. Here's a one-stop shop: link.
  2. Analyze and combine: you will need to compile complete data for your area, often times by combining tables and creating custom analysis. This can be a very time consuming step.
  3. Formatting: now you put the story together visually, and these days creating a web-friendly version is necessary so you can post online. Remember to choose words and length carefully!

If this all sounds like a lot of work, we would agree with you. That's why we've created the "easy button" for telling short data stories here at eImpact.

Here is a great example

Tell Us What You Think!

We would love to hear about your goals and share some interesting examples of with you.