How to Use Storytelling Conventions to Create Better Visualizations

Minor annoyances or moderately-challenging setbacks might lead her to make adjustments, but that doesn’t make for a compelling story.

What is compelling is when an event threatens the very essence of life as she knows it.

When that happens, action is not optional; it’s a matter of survival.

A visualization is likewise defined by action — consequential action, more to the point.

Its aim is to convince the viewer that the status quo is unacceptable and that action is mandatory.

In the same way a story uses crisis as an impetus for action, a visualization makes crises jump off the screen and compels the viewer to act.

It does not allow minor issues to clutter the view, but rather it focuses squarely on the things that will dramatically damage the current state if left unaddressed.

In the business world it’s common to see a report full of performance KPIs like sales this year vs the previous year, or market share of a company vs a competitor.

In far too many cases, every positive and negative variation is highlighted with green or red like the left side of the chart above.

While it succeeds in looking like a Christmas tree, it fails at helping the viewer understand what truly matters.

In reality only a few KPI variances have meaningful implications for the overall health of a business, which are called exceptions.

An effective visualization is clear on which exceptions impact performance the most, and displays them front and center.

Progressively-revealed detail“A journey to restore balance that faces progressively escalating opposition”Every story is a journey.

They are sometimes about the protagonist literally getting from point A to point B, but they are always about the protagonist’s journey of personal transformation.

No good story leaves its characters how it found them.

It may seem that all is well at the beginning of a story, but a major crisis exposes how vulnerable they are.

The narrative arc is not about recovering what the crisis took away; it’s about the protagonist growing into a better version of themselves that they didn’t realize was possible before.

And just like in real life, it doesn’t happen with one transformational event, but progressively over the course of many events with each one requiring a little more than the one before it.

The heroism that’s always required in the final act would not be possible in act one.

It’s the journey in the middle that makes it possible.

While a visualization does not usually demand heroic acts from its users, it does concede that they need to go on a journey involving several stages of analysis before they’re ready to act.

Few real-world problems are so simple that a single KPI or view could clarify the severity of a situation or the appropriate response.

Decision-makers want to go through a progression that starts with high-level performance questions and then move on to increasingly-detailed questions until a specific opportunity for action is identified.

The job of a visualization is to simply mirror this progression.

Actionable conclusions“A climax where the protagonist must decide to risk everything in order find balance once again”In the narrative arc of a story, the protagonist’s transformation is only complete once he irreversibly turns away from who he once was and embraces his new self.

Every event, character, decision, and action in the story builds to the moment at the end where he makes a final decision and takes the required action.

In a well-crafted story, the end seems inevitable because every previous moment logically led to it, one step at a time.

In the same way, a visualization builds toward a final, decisive action from its users.

Every choice about what, how, and where to show information is made with this end in mind.

Common tabular reports provide information and nothing more.

A better visualization provides the necessary insight for making decisions.

To do this well, a visualization designer learns what type of information her user base needs for better decision-making, and then figures out how to sequence visuals so that her users can intuitively get to that information as quickly as possible.

As a visualization developer, it’s tempting to focus on developing technical skills.

The list of database types, languages, and visualization tools is ever-expanding and there’s obvious value in mastering many of them.

However, few people have mastered the critical skill of storytelling.

Those that do are highly valued and sought-after — even those with average technical skills.

A great next step for someone who wants to go deeper is to read what the master storytellers say about the topic.

If you need a place to start, read Story by Robert McKee.

Aside from being an enjoyable read, his framework for screenwriting parallels data visualization in a way that is insightful and inspiring.

There are, of course, many great resources on the topic, so pick one and invest in becoming a better storyteller.

Your visualizations will always tell a story, so why not master the skill of telling the best one possible?Dan is the practice leader for Visual Analytics at Aspirent Consulting.

He has over 15 years of experience in finance, business analytics, and visualization working with Fortune 500 companies including The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, IHG, and Mattel.

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