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Getting data-driven stories right

While statistics can make content more credible or help make a point in fewer words, it is tricky getting numbers to tell a story, and developing actionable insights from data is among the top challenges for marketers. By considering these key factors you’ll be off to a good start.

The Message

To keep the story on point, try to summarise it in a single headline or tweet, as this post in the Harvard Business Review suggests. Select one or two key data points or insights – the more unique the better – that support this core message and lead with them. Also resist the urge to cram as much supporting data into a piece as you can; few things provoke as many yawns as a sea of numbers and just a couple of strong statistics can add more weight than dozens of middling ones. Any data you leave behind can always be used in the future.

The Sourcing

Especially when working with external data, take extra care to ensure its provenance. Always look for original sources and vet their reliability. Databases of governments and world bodies, research agencies, industry associations and renowned think tanks are good places to start. Also make sure to be transparent about where your data came from and how any conclusions are reached. Attribution is key, especially when working with third-party data, as it burnishes a campaign’s and the organisation’s credibility — whereas failing to attribute data properly does quite the opposite. Read more about that here.

The Analysis

To cut through the jumble of data, make comparisons and look for trends, patterns and relationships to coax out relevant findings. However don’t overstretch in the desire to make connections, and make sure you’re comparing rough equivalents. Contrasting the economic data of cities with vastly different population sizes, for example, is unlikely to yield anything worthwhile. Most importantly, look for (and test) findings that are genuinely counterintuitive or run against the grain, which are virtually guaranteed to attract attention and provoke debate.

The Narrative

To paraphrase behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman: No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story. Data-driven stories are as much about the narrative as they are about the numbers. So, it’s necessary to step into the audience’s shoes and ensure a piece flows logically from one data point to the next. Keep it simple, avoid jargon, and include anecdotes and real-life examples that will help the audience readily relate to the information. Here’s an example from the South China Morning Post that weaves a compelling narrative about the Belt and Road Initiative through interactive charts, maps and graphs.

The Presentation

Given that the numbers are the story, make the presentation as visual as possible to break down complex findings and drive home the message. Research has shown that the human mind can’t process numbers beyond a certain level (read more about that here) so it helps to provide visual aids. Charts, infographics and interactive tables, used with a strategic combination of colors, can convey the data in a striking yet easy to digest manner. This selection from the New York Times provides a good overview of the various ways data can be presented.

The Engagement

Considering that the entire exercise is aimed at engaging the audience, make sure to create an opening for interactions. Invite, encourage and drive discussions around the story; guide the audience to information that complements the material at hand; and, seek feedback. Gathering statistics on what your audience likes and dislikes can provide you with fresh data to inform the next stage of your publishing plans.

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