Chances are you’ve heard this common question asked in business, academia, and scientific research settings: "What is the data telling you?"


There’s a good reason why — it reflects how data contains a treasure trove of insights and wisdom that could help drive effective, profitable decisions. However, the problem is that most people have difficulty reading and interpreting raw data.


This is where storytelling with data visualization comes into play. Data visualization is a way to represent data in a graphical and more engaging way, and it shines much more brightly when used to support great storytelling.


This article will discuss how you can use data visualization to tell compelling narratives to your clients, stakeholders, and investors. First we’ll cover the basics, then give some inspiring examples to get you started. 


What is Data Visualization?

Data visualization is a way of representing data using graphics and pictures. The goal here is to take complex data and turn it into a form that's easy to understand and analyze.


Let's take one of the most common data visualizations you'll see – a pie chart – and see how it can help you process data. This is most often used to depict the composition of something, such as the expense category in a household budget.


But that's just the beginning. There are other ways to visualize data, each with its use cases. For example, a line chart is great for tracking how something changes over time, such as monthly sales or app downloads.


The power of data visualization lies in its ability to help anyone – even non-data-savvy people like founders and stakeholders – interpret and compare complex information. And that's why data visualization and storytelling work so well together.


A story needs facts and data to be more credible and compelling. On the other hand, data alone can't tell the whole story. But put them together, and you can relay the best possible narrative.


Data visualization can help support your narrative by providing evidence and facts to back up your claims. This can make your story appear much more credible.


Using a data narrative can also enrich your story. For some people, it can be hard to picture something in words. But great data visualization can connect the dots for your users and help them arrive at a conclusion.


Storytelling with Data Visualization: A How-To Guide

So how can you harness the power of data visualization storytelling? Here are some storytelling/visualization best practices to help you get started.


Define objectives

Before you start with your data visualization stories, you need to determine your goal first. What are you trying to achieve? Is it to show the potential impact of a fundraising event to investors? Or is it to highlight the issues that your nonprofit is trying to solve?


Whatever your objective is, it's crucial that you start with it — every decision you'll make (like which data to use and how to visualize it) will depend greatly on your desired outcome. This can also help you save time and effort by scrapping data that doesn't support your hypothesis.


Know your audience

You must also know your audience before coming up with your visualization story. That's because not everything is important to everyone. 


For instance, let's say you're soliciting money for a fundraiser. An impact investor might care about the numbers. At the same time, a regular person might be swayed more by the cause you're supporting. Thus, you need two different stories to engage with these two groups. And you can only do that by knowing your audience deeply.


Researching your audience also lets you gauge what they already know about your topic. This helps create an interesting narrative that drives understanding without "dumbing it down" for your audience. 


Identify your narrative

Data visualization storytelling is still storytelling. It's about getting your viewer from point A to point B. And just like any great story, your data narrative should incorporate elements that make it more effective and impactful.


  • First, start with the plot of your story. In our case, this is the main premise of your data narrative – the main point you're trying to relay or the question you're trying to answer. Figuring out the main plot allows you to design a journey for your audience. You might start with an intriguing question, then use storytelling with data visualization to build momentum, eventually leading them to your desired conclusion.

  • Next, lay out the setting of the story. Here, you can use data to paint a picture of where things are currently at. For instance, if you're trying to solve a social issue, you can use historical data to relay the problem's urgency. The setting of your story gives your audience context that allows them to appreciate your storytelling.

  • Next, you need to consider the story's character – your audience. The important question to answer here is: "what's in it for me?" Your narrative must fulfill something for your main character, whether it's to help them achieve their goals or change their mindset.

  • Lastly, you must craft the ending. Take all the things you discussed in your story, then tie them together in a satisfying conclusion. This could be a simple summary to strengthen the reader's understanding. 

Ultimately, the most effective endings are those that inspire action, such as donating to your fundraiser or investing in your foundation. After all, that's what your story is for.


Use the right data-driven narrative

There are many ways to tell a story, which is why there are multiple data-driven narratives to choose from.


Which one you should choose depends on the nature of your story. Let’s look at a few examples: 

A statistical relationship is a good approach for comparing how one factor influences another. For instance, you can use data to show how the number of hours children spend watching TV can negatively influence school performance.


Trends are great tools for showing how something changes over time. For instance, you can track the poverty levels of your local neighborhood to convince people to help with your food program for those living in poverty.


As the name suggests, a comparison approach is ideal for evaluating two or more variables with each other. This is great, for example, for showing the historical votes of two candidates in a local election.


Ranking data is useful if you want to show hierarchy and importance. This is best shown in a pie chart. For instance, you can visualize the spending habits of your local government via ranking.


Lastly, you can use a counterintuitive approach to reveal a surprising and unexpected relationship between two data sets. This has the benefit of stirring your reader's interest, so they engage with your story more. 


Use the right data visualization method


Once you have your chosen narrative approach, you should pair it with an appropriate method. This can make or break your story because the wrong method can make your data visualization appear confusing and ineffective. Here are some common visualization methods:


One of the most common you’ll use often is the bar chart. It’s a versatile method that can represent any data type, most especially categorical data. For instance, a bar chart can help you compare different groups.


A line chart is a method that shows data changing over time. It’s great for showing trends, as well as financial data like monthly sales or funds raised.


Maps are specific to displaying information over geographic areas. For instance, you can use it to show a country's distribution of certain ethnicities. Maps make it easy for the viewer to spot trends by looking at where the dots are concentrated.


Finally, you have the table, a classic method for showing data categories simultaneously. It’s one of the easier ways for a reader to digest a large amount of information at once.


Make your story relatable and insightful

The best stories are always relatable, so ensure it’s the same with your data-driven narrative. One way to do this is to relate the story to your audience’s dreams, needs, and beliefs. For example, instead of just recounting the details of your fundraising event, tell them how donating can help them save lives.


Hitting emotions this way is an effective tactic for getting people’s attention, improving engagement, and encouraging action. But your story should do more than just entertain; it should also educate. Your reader should gain useful insights from your story that will allow them to make a decision or solve their problems.


Pick a good data visualization tool

Now that you’ve fleshed out your data visualization approach and narrative, it’s time to bring it to life using the right data visualization tool. A good platform should let you take your raw data and give you creative options to visualize it. It should also let you pick from various methods to suit your narrative.


One tool that you might already have access to is Google’s G-Suite. You can, for instance, use Google Sheets to create charts and Google Slides to present them. It’s effective in a pinch but only offers basic features. For a more advanced toolkit, you can check out dedicated data visualization platforms like the UpMetrics social impact measurement tool that will collect, analyze, and share data in an engaging way to help drive greater impact.   


Visual design best practices

It’s not enough to depict your data visually with pie charts and graphs. It would be best if you also made it look aesthetically pleasing. Even the most engaging narrative and insightful data can get lost in a cluttered design.


Thus, you should always use sound design principles when presenting your data visualizations. For example, the smart use of white space can help readers focus on the key visuals in your presentation. This can also help avoid visual overwhelm, disengaging the reader from the piece.


Also, consider how the viewer’s eye travels when reading your content. Most people read in either an F-pattern layout (if the piece is text-heavy) or a Z-pattern layout (for graphics-heavy material). So, you should take this into account when designing.


When in doubt, it’s best to get the expertise of a graphic designer to enhance the aesthetics of your report or presentation.


Storytelling with Data: Examples that Inspire

Want to see the effects of this data-powered storytelling in real life? Here are two narrative visualization examples to inspire your own storytelling.


Oxfam Ireland’s annual impact report

Oxfam is a UK-based international NGO with a worldwide network of charitable organizations. The organization focuses on providing relief services for people suffering from various global crises, such as the Nepal earthquake and the Bosnian war.


NGOs usually don’t have a habit of tracking data – much less using it to tell a story. But Oxfam is a rare exception. 


They used data visualization brilliantly in their annual impact report. It featured beautiful data-driven maps listing all the countries they have delivered relief services to. The data visualization did a great job of supporting the main narrative – how Oxfam made an impact.


The Marine Stewardship Council’s highly-relatable narrative

The Marine Stewardship Council released one of the most effective and emotionally charged stories of any NGO we’ve seen. The report is on the current state of global fisheries. The brilliance of the piece is apparent from the very beginning, as it uses the personal story of a fisherman to set a starting point for the narrative.


From there, the report uses data visualization to paint a picture of the global fishing industry, including a beautiful pie chart showing the global marine stocks during the past decades. But the story always revolved around the fisherman, even discussing fishing best practices through his perspective.


This is a fantastic example of data giving credibility and impact to a relatable and emotional narrative. Many NGOs have a problem eliciting responses from people because of the lack of data-driven stories. But the Marine Stewardship Council pulled it off beautifully here.


Tell Compelling Data-Driven Stories with UpMetrics

By now, you should already know how to put together a powerful, data-driven story that inspires your stakeholders or donors into action. After that, it’s time to incorporate it into your organization’s planning and marketing.


And this is where UpMetrics can help. It’s a simple yet flexible social impact measurement platform that allows organizations, NGOs and foundations to operate better with top-notch planning, forecasting, and collaboration features.


Visit our website or request a free demo today to learn more.

Post by UpMetrics Staff
January 26, 2023