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Data Storytelling: The Marriage of Science & Art

A graphic saying "Data Storytelling: The Marriage of Science and Art."

This article was written by Jenny Haskins, SEO Strategist at NP DIgital

You don’t necessarily need words to tell a story – in fact, sometimes numbers work just as well. But how can you successfully create a beginning, middle, and end with numbers? And of course, by “numbers” I really mean “data,” because we are digital marketers after all. 

Data storytelling is an intrinsic part of various marketing services, especially if you work in an agency setting. If this balance of art and science is done well, you’ll engage stakeholders in conversation, hold your audience’s attention, and maybe even keep them on the edge of their seats. 

Key Takeaways

  • Data storytelling engages, clarifies, persuades, contextualizes, enhances memorability, and humanizes data, leading to better understanding and decision-making.
  • Over 90% of the brain contains visual content.
  • There are 4 non-linear steps for effective data storytelling: collection, analysis, visualization, and narrative development.
  • Data storytelling, when executed well, can make complex figures accessible to a variety of audiences.
  • Embrace flexibility in the storytelling process, which will lead to more compelling and well-rounded narratives.

What is Data Storytelling?

Data storytelling combines visuals with compelling narrative. It’s the practice of collecting, analyzing, visualizing, and conveying data in an engaging and persuasive way. The goal is to drive decision-making and inspire action based on insights; made easier by a memorable, relatable narrative.

A Venn Diagram of Data, Narrative, and Change.

Image Source: domo.com

Why is it Important?

Instead of asking why data storytelling is important, ask yourself: What’s the point of a good story? To entertain and/or convey a message, you might answer. The same goes for data storytelling.

Or, imagine a long-anticipated film was just released. How do you want to walk away from the theater? Excited, giddy, thought-provoked, inspired. The same goes for data storytelling.  

Our clients are just like us: human. Rather than watching a stakeholder’s eyes glaze over during your presentation, strive to wow them with the numbers you worked so hard to put together. As humans, our brains are drawn to stories for several psychological reasons. There are survival and sociological components like knowledge sharing, relationship building, and even the release of oxytocin in the brain that lead to deeper connection, emotional resonance, and information retention.

And the numbers don’t lie: A major bank created a credit card that targeted Millennials by evoking emotion with storytelling. Use by this age group grew by 70% and new accounts increased by 40%. 

Furthermore, it’s important to note that more than 90% of our brain is made up of visual content. Therefore, creating a story behind data visualization helps keep it in the brain (memorization). 

TL;DR: Data storytelling is important simply because it helps with clarity and understanding, engagement during your presentation, decision-making, memorability, and alignment.

The Science of Data Storytelling

Any professional with a job rooted in numbers knows the importance of accuracy, transparency, and accountability. As an SEO, this holds true. I always gather and check essential data (performance for traffic, leads, keywords ranking) twice before even thinking about crafting a narrative. 

Science (the numbers/data) drives the first two steps of data storytelling:

Collection

This is the initial phase where relevant data is gathered from various sources. My go-to data sources are (of course) Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Ahrefs, SEMrush, among others – mostly looking at organic traffic, keywords ranking, conversions, SERPs, and more.

Analysis

Once the data is collected, it needs to be analyzed to identify trends, patterns, and insights. This often involves using statistical techniques and data visualization tools to make sense of the information. For example, to better understand metrics pulled from Google Analytics, I’ll create a Looker Studio dashboard, which creates automatic visuals for your priority KPIs during a specific timeframe.

With science, everything needs to be exact. However, when mixing art with anything, “exact” isn’t exactly entirely possible. Once data is collected and analyzed, it’s time to get creative.

The Art of Data Storytelling

At this point, we’ve the role of storytelling in human communication and its power in conveying complex information. With data storytelling, this is where the art of it comes in. There’s creativity, flexibility, and personal touch involved in crafting a story and its five elements (character, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution). But how do we merge the art behind those elements with the science behind our data? 

We move to the last two steps in data storytelling:

Visualization

Data visualization plays a crucial role in data storytelling. Charts, graphs, screenshots, and other visual aids are used to illustrate key points and make the data more accessible and understandable to the audience.

Narrative Development

This is where the magic happens. Instead of simply presenting raw data, the insights gleaned from the analysis are crafted into a narrative. This narrative should have a clear structure with a beginning, middle, and end, and should aim to communicate a specific message or idea.

Completing this last step helps us understand our story elements. 

An example based on my role: The character is the client’s business, setting is their website, plot is performance, conflict is areas of opportunity (content updates, technical fixes, quick wins), and resolution is how we navigate those areas of opportunity. See the following case study to further this example – it demonstrates how NP Digital achieved various performance increases for an SEO campaign through data, visualization, and narrative.

A slide detailing NPD's success with Lantern SoFi.

Image Source: NP Digital

The art of data storytelling also means not always following these four steps to a tee. Remember to embrace flexibility – follow loose ends, answer your own questions, and explore every option. This not only helps you better understand your data, it:

  • Creates a more-compelling, well-rounded story
  • Makes you more confident and personable
  • Promotes curiosity within yourself
  • Keeps presentations fresh with new information

Embracing flexibility will also keep you jumping between steps. Researching one piece of data and find something else that just might be relevant to your story? Back to step one. Think that your point will be driven home by looking into one more thing? Back to step one. Find something that throws a wrench in your whole story? Go to step four.

The intersection of science and art, logic and creativity, data and storytelling is complimentary; each of these different aspects feeds into the other.

Examples of Data Storytelling

Examples of data storytelling are more prominent in your day-to-day life than you may realize.

Spotify Wrapped results.

Image Source: Spotify Newsroom

Remember how crazy everyone goes at year’s end for Spotify Wrapped? Me too. Why is that? Think about it: Spotify aggregates your listening data throughout the year, which is personalized to you. Then, through a familiar social media story format, they entice users to click through to the next snippet of their own music story. Spotify also uses striking visuals/graphics to help users digest the data, and sound for an immersive experience. Lastly, they prompt users to promote their own data on social media (free marketing). 

It’s brilliant. Spotify’s revenue grew by 322% since Wrapped’s launch in 2016 (Q4 ‘16 vs. Q4 ‘23), with the largest growth occurring that year of its launch

The Future of Data Storytelling

There’s no doubt that data storytelling will only become more prevalent as time goes on. Data is at our fingertips with tech like smartphones, smart watches, social media, fitness trackers, step counters, screen time notifications, personalized music metrics, and much more – even non-marketers are reading stories via data every day.

Results from a step tracking app.

Image Source: MacStories  

Data storytelling presents an exciting frontier where technology, creativity, and data converge to revolutionize how we communicate insights and make decisions. 

Data storytelling certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so put your creative hats on and let’s travel the winding road of data together.

About The Author: Jenny Haskins merged her love of art with copywriting early in her career at an American art museum in New England. She soon transitioned to a small marketing agency where she leveraged her content strategy expertise with the foundations of SEO before joining NP Digital as an SEO Strategist in 2021. She brings over a decade of experience to every client relationship, focusing on driving results and conversions in every engagement. 

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