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How to turn your data into a compelling story

August 31, 2017
Shanann Monaghan

Head of Customer Marketing

At Looker, we get excited about data. How many people voted in the last presidential election? Who were those people? Who gets the most screen time in Game of Thrones? What can data tell us about building our Fantasy Football draft?

But as data people, we also know that data on it’s own isn’t always enough to insight action.

Humans think in stories.

It’s true. As a species, we’re hardwired to relate thoughts through images and stories. For example, if you tell someone: “Quarterbacks are reliable players in Fantasy Football, Running Backs are not” they will find it interesting, sure... but what actual value is there in that information? They need to feel a connection to the data in order to apply it to themselves.

However, if you say: “Data shows that NFL Quarterbacks are being strategically protected from injuries by their organizations, making them the most reliable picks for Fantasy performance, over the past 8 seasons. Running backs on the other hand, get hurt pretty frequently and are therefore extremely unreliable, with only one player making a repeat appearance at top spot in the last 8 years.”

Now that is something they’re going to remember when they’re putting together their Fantasy draft.

If you can learn to present your data through a compelling story, you’ll have a sure-fire recipe for success.

To help you better understand, consider this point made by Tomasz Tunguz in his book, Winning with Data:

In its simplest form, a story is a connection between cause and effect. Peter tricks the villagers too many times with a false “Wolf” cry. For his transgression, he suffers the loss of his flock. When Aesop wrote his fables, he inculcated in Greek children a sense of cause-and-effect relationships that would serve them all their lives. Like those morals, the implications of data are best conveyed through stories.

Tomasz Tunguz, Winning with Data

Data Stories at JOIN 2017

This year we’ve lined up 12 stellar Data Stories presented by Looker customers Buzzfeed, Autodesk, Twilio, Blue Apron, GitHub and more! We’ve asked them to stand up at JOIN - Looker’s annual data conference - and tell stories around their data.

Extremely popular with JOIN attendees, it’s always interesting to hearing their stories around how they became data-centric, chasing data, finding value in data, creative uses for data, etc.


Here are the top tips we’ve shared with our presenters to create compelling data stories:

  1. Test your story idea. Once you’ve come up with an idea, we suggest you write it down in one or two sentences and then ask yourself - is my idea or story new? Is my idea interesting? Is it factual and realistic? Can the call to action be executed? What is your thesis? Does it matter?

  2. Create a beginning, a middle and an end. Most stories involve a problem or a conflict and a resolution. Resolutions usually teach a lesson or prove a point, in other words they have a thesis that the whole story leads up to proving.

  3. Plan the structure of your talk. We love how TEDx breaks down their recommended presentation structure.

    1. Make your audience care by using a relatable example or intriguing idea.
    2. Explain your idea clearly and with conviction.
    3. Describe your evidence.
    4. Provide a call to action - the how and why of implementing your idea.
    5. Reveal the new reality - how the lives of your audience members will be affected if they act on your idea.
  4. Keep your slides simple. There’s only one rule for your slides: keep it simple. Stick to a few words or an image, or as Nancy Duarte calls it “the glance test.”

  5. Practice. Just do it, and do it a few times for different people. Ask someone to time you and call you out when you are moving around too much. Be open to and accepting of feedback. Remember:

    1. Your presentation begins the moment you walk towards stage, practice a confident walk.
    2. Use pauses instead of filler words like “um, ah, so, like, you know”
    3. Generally you will speak faster to an audience then you do during a practice session. Be mindful of pace in your practice runs.
  6. Have fun! This is the most important advice.The audience will feed off of your energy. Be yourself and keep things lively.

Data alone is not powerful enough to inspire people to act or change. It must be interwoven with passion and emotion and conviction. By becoming great storytellers with data, we can change the way our businesses operate.

Tomasz Tunguz, Winning with Data

Need more inspiration? Attend the Data Stories sessions at JOIN 2017 and watch your peers present. We’ll also post recordings of our Data Stories post-JOIN for everyone to learn from and share!

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