Storytelling makes data digestible. It gives data meaning. In 2014, more and more of the stories we see will be data driven or, at a minimum, data informed.

Mind you, at this point, I’m not talking about literature, television, movies, the oral tradition or even marketing pitches (the latter will come soon). I'm talking about stories that combine data and storytelling to do one of two things: to enrich a story that’s being told or to build narratives around data. In either case, data — big, medium or small — now plays a new, important role in engaging readers/receivers in stories and in making communication and decision-making easier.

Data-driven stories, it should be noted, are highly visual and intend to engage the reader/receiver in ways that Excel spreadsheets cannot.

The Data Behind the Story

In this, the first of a series of articles about storytelling in a data–driven age, we turned to Francois Ajenstat, product management leader at Tableau Software, for insight. Posing as completely uninformed, ill-prepared interviewers, we asked him to tell us about the difference between regular storytelling and storytelling in the age of data.

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There’s data behind every story, but it hasn’t always been quantified and shared in a consumable way, until recently.

In the consumer space, where a story is being told about a particular topic (e.g. the New York Daily News’ article  that uses data to refute the mayor’s claims about the city’s controversial stop and frisk policy), data can be used to engage and inform the reader. The beauty of this is that the “consumer” can interact with the data via the visualization, personalize the story for himself and learn more about what matters most to him.

Learning Opportunities

Boardroom to Conference Room to Cubicle

“Hunches are good, data is better.” if you heard best-selling author and business guru Dan Pink speak at the Teradata Partners Conference last year, you already know this. And though C-level executives have typically had data specialists at their beck and call to create charts about this and that, the visualizations they delivered were often static, they couldn’t be manipulated, and they couldn’t answer questions on the fly. As a result, many boardroom stories had limited scopes and were based on a restricted number of scenarios. Decisions were based partly on data and partly on hunches.

Today,  C-level executives and workers enterprise wide, for that matter, can ask their data questions and create data visualizations in a few clicks (using software from companies such as Tableau, Salesforce, IBM and others). The visualizations are interactive which means that search criteria can be modified that drill downs are possible and that many more questions can be asked. Opening minds, reaching consensus and decision-making becomes easier and far less of a gamble when we can visualize and manipulate the data that tells the story. See if  this video  doesn’t enlighten you about carbon emissions.

While in the past specialists were required to create rich visualizations, new user-friendly software now exists to help the “man on the street” to use data to tell stories completely for free.

Start Telling Stories with Data Today

No matter who you are, no matter where you work, being able to tell stories with data will become vital to your business and your career. If you want to start honing your skills now, you can find your dataset of tweets on Twitter, US Government data on, your city’s or county’s data on sites like New York City’s Open Data Initiative, and, of course, at your company.

Title image by Tiut Vladut (Shutterstock).