1. Data
  2. Data Analysis
  3. Data Storytelling

A Beginner’s Guide to Data Storytelling

Data Storytelling

By Alissa Livingston

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. The words, the cadence, the visuals — whether seen with our eyes or in our minds — quickly capture us, engaging every area of our brains as we listen intently, anticipate logically, and become entangled emotionally. From the podcasts we listen to during our morning commute, to office gossip, to Thursday night Must See TV, we are awash in stories. And we love them so much that we heap money and accolades upon our best storytellers, from singers, authors, and movie directors to the social media stars sharing the visual story of their lives. So, it should be no surprise that we desire a good story with our data as well.

What Is Data Storytelling?

Data is a snapshot of measurable information that details what has happened at some point in time. Examples of data in a business context may include measurable events, such as amount of sales achieved, the number of social media impressions captured, or the duration of rental bike rides during weekdays and weekends. Data storytelling allows you, the business professional, to explain why these events have occurred, what may happen next, and what business decisions can be made with this newly acquired knowledge. Effective data storytelling, in the form of presentations that combine context, details, and visual illustrations, accomplishes three main objectives:

  • Builds a credible narrative around an analysis of data.
  • Connects a series of insights with a smooth flow of information.
  • Concludes the narrative with a compelling call to action.

Data Storytelling in Business: Inside Luxury Retail

Being skilled at data storytelling is critical in every business, and I’ve seen it hard at work specifically in the world of luxury retail, the industry I’ve been lucky enough to analyze and explore. Data is created with every physical interaction in a store and every click on a screen, and decisions must keep pace of this constant stream of information. On top of that, almost every retail initiative requires collaboration between many people and teams, including finance, merchandising, marketing, stores, visual, and logistics, to name a few. By presenting a clear flow of analysis that all teams and stakeholders can follow with an actionable conclusion, I’m able to motivate my team and drive results.

By completing an analysis of style selling by price point, I may discover that my customers buy more handbags that cost $500 than handbags that cost $1,000. This might be the opposite of what my buyers and sales associates expected. Based on this price-sensitivity insight, my new strategy might be to increase the number of handbags priced below $500 and decrease the number of handbags priced above $1,000. In order to get my team to support this change in action, I frame my data story with more impactful visual displays for the buyers and more satisfying store experiences for the sales associates. By presenting the data with my audience in mind, I can communicate effectively with all team members, especially those who may not be motivated by numbers or percentages but instead understand a story about meeting customer needs and delivering high-quality service.

Data storytelling is utilized across many industries and topics, borrowing from many story arches that we already know and love. In the TED Talk “The Math Behind Basketball's Wildest Moves,” Rajiv Maheswaran employs the excitement and pace of a basketball game highlight reel to tell the data story of movement in our everyday lives. He grabs us from the start with high-tech visuals that turn pro-basketball plays into “moving” data “dots.” From these data points, he decodes the patterns found in game-winning plays with the excitement of a sportscaster.

By the end of the 12-minute presentation, he has not only convinced us of the importance of tracking movement to create more basketball wins, but that our movements — as regular people at work, at home, and beyond — can generate insights that create more wins for us in the game of life.

Data Storytelling at General Assembly

In General Assembly’s data-focused courses, students practice converting analysis results into compelling stories that drive business solutions using real-world data sets. In our part-time Data Analytics course, for example, students analyze open data from companies like Mozilla Firefox and Airbnb and use one of several storyboard frameworks to guide the arc of their data story. Students can also dive into the essentials of data storytelling in a self-paced, mentor-guided Data Analysis course, as well as part- and full-time Data Science programs.

GA’s project-based approach provides three key benefits:

  • Each presentation gives students an opportunity to test different storytelling frameworks, helping them learn what works best for different data situations, as well as what fits their personal style.
  • Hearing other students present from the same data set allows students to see how different approaches lead to different insights and different levels of effectiveness.
  • Receiving immediate presentation feedback from their instructor, instructional associate, and peers allows students to greatly improve their presentation skills within a short amount of time. 

Meet Our Expert

Alissa Livingston is a financial planning manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. When she's not traveling to Paris or Milan to negotiate with the luxury brands we all covet, she’s training for half marathons, rain or shine. Alissa received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University in Chicago and an MBA from Columbia Business School in the City of New York. She’s an instructor for GA’s part-time Data Analytics course and weekend SQL Bootcamp.

“Being able to identify and communicate business opportunities through data storytelling can put you at the center of the decision-making process, whether you are part of a small team or a large organization.”

Alissa Livingston, Data Analytics Instructor, General Assembly New York