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Using Pictures and Storytelling to Present Business Data

​SEATTLE—Do you want people to pay attention when you present HR data? Do you want to motivate leadership to act on those findings? Try telling a story.

"Stories resonate and stick with your audience in ways that data alone does not," said data visualization expert Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, founder and CEO of Storytelling with Data, a Milwaukee-based consultancy.

A former people analytics manager at Google, Knaflic presented at the Society for Human Resource Management People Analytics conference on Jan. 14.

There are two main takeaways when it comes to presenting data effectively—the use of pictures and story, she said. "We can use storytelling lessons to get our audience's attention, build credibility and ultimately drive them to understanding and action."

Focus Attention with Pictures

Pictures, including charts, prompt recall, Knaflic said. "Graphs—when they are done well—can be incredibly powerful to help reinforce your story."

But it's important to eliminate clutter. Clutter makes graphs appear more complicated than necessary. "Every single element you add [to a graph or chart] takes up cognitive load on the part of your audience," she said. "Identify anything that isn't adding enough informative value and strip those unnecessary elements away."

Some simple rules of thumb when creating charts and graphs:

  • Eliminate grid lines and borders.
  • Clean up axis labels.
  • Label data directly instead of using a legend.
  • Use the same colors for the data labels and the data they describe.
  • Strip out extraneous data. "We tend to err more often on the side of too much data," she said. "Just consider for any data you remove, what context are you losing?"

In addition to removing distractions, Knaflic recommended using design principles to focus attention to the key information you want to communicate:

  • Use contrast strategically. "The more things we make different, the lesser degree that any one of those things will stand out," she said. "Said another way, if there is something that is really critical, we want to make that one thing different than the rest, so our audience knows where to look."
  • Use size, color, typeface and enclosure to direct attention. "Color used sparingly is your most strategic tool for directing your audience." Remember that an abundance of color "is really fun for a party but not great for visual communication," she said. "Your data visual may look pretty but you lose sufficient contrast to draw audience attention to where you want them."

One tip is to start by making the chart or graph gray to make yourself intentionally choose how you focus attention. You can then highlight a key point in the data by making it larger, highlighting it with color, or using "brute force methods" like circling it, Knaflic said.

Story Evokes Emotion

Stories tell your audience the key takeaway you want them to learn from your data presentation. One easy way to express that is titling the graph or chart with the takeaway ("Headcount has increased 16% year-over-year") instead of a generic title like "Retention."

To be truly effective at communicating data, use the timeless device of the story arc—plot, rising tension, the point of climax, falling action and resolution.

"We are hard-wired to remember information that comes to us in a narrative arc," Knaflic said. "The challenge is that the typical business presentation follows a linear path. This is a very selfish path, because at no point along this path do you ever have to give any thought to your audience. Remember that the tension in a narrative arc is not what matters to you, but what matters to your audience."

You should never be making up tension, she added. Without tension, there's nothing to communicate in the first place. "If you identify the tension that they care about, and you can communicate about it, you can get their attention and their action," she said.

An example of presenting data in story format follows:

  • Start with plot. "Directors historically made up about 5 percent of the organization and we filled roles through promotions."
  • Introduce tension. "Director headcount has been increasing, but not as fast as the overall organization, and director attrition has also been increasing."
  • Dramatize the climax. "As we project these trends forward, that gap will get larger."
  • Bring in the falling action. "But we have time, and options. We have ideas about resolving the problem."
  • Present the resolution. "Let's impact this, work to better understand attrition at the director level, invest in manager development to promote people faster or revisit our hiring strategy to fill those roles."

Don't just show your data, Knaflic said. "Work to answer the question of 'So what?' And beyond that, make the data a pivotal point in an overarching story."


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