Insights Blog

Still not convinced about data storytelling? Read this

Why storytelling is crucial – Exasol

This is a guest blog by Exasol’s Chief Data and Analytics Officer Peter Jackson, in which he discusses the role of data storytelling. In particular, he covers:

– How to go beyond dashboards
– The power of narratives
– The barriers to storytelling with data
– What steps to take

Data on how organizations operate can inform how they make decisions across the board, no matter their size. 

Gartner’s Data & Analytics Trends Report for 2021 included the use of “data and analytics as a core business function”, while IDC suggests that almost two thirds (64%) of businesses believe data collection and analysis has “fundamentally changed the way their company does business over the last three years.”

With that in mind, one of the most important recognitions that companies are now making is the need to make data accessible to everyone. In Exasol’s recently launched research report, From the ‘what’ to the ‘why’, 90% of the 500 leaders and data professionals profiled said that data democratization was a priority for their business that they were actively working towards it.

Dash-bored

The most common tool for sharing data remains the data dashboard: 82% of respondents regularly use dashboards to share and communicate insights with colleagues at every level. For tasks like tracking inventory levels in real time, it’s a perfect fit, offering streamlined glimpses of important metrics on demand.

However, as numbers become more complex and require more context, simply sharing a dashboard with a colleague or partner business may not be sufficient in conveying the information needed. In fact, in our research, 61% of business leaders feel that dashboards don’t provide enough context, while 54% feel that they simply try and display too much.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with modern dashboards. In fact, we love the likes of Yellowfin and Tableau, which enable users to quickly and intuitively access valuable insights. They’ve put reams of actionable data into the hands of millions of individuals and thousands of organizations who previously didn’t have access to such information. And yet, despite the power of the dashboard, they can sometimes fail in conveying the ‘why’.

We can have all the data in the world. Without grounding the numbers in some sort of reality or context, the meaning, learning or insight can be lost. This must change.

If teams can’t absorb the real-world impact of the data and analytics that they’re able to collect, then the process is at best inefficient, and at worst, pointless. Data needs a compelling narrative if the statistics are to matter and bring about meaningful change. 

In other words, it needs a story.

Read between the numbers

According to TWDI’s definition, data storytelling is “the practice of building a narrative around a set of data and its accompanying visualizations to help convey the meaning of that data in a powerful and compelling fashion.”

In layman’s terms, that means bringing more to the table than data alone. It’s a well-recognized technique among IT and data decision-makers: 82% are familiar with storytelling, according to our research, with 92% agreeing that storytelling is an effective means of delivering the findings of data and analytics.

What’s more, senior executives in organizations reckon it’s importance. Almost three-quarters (72%) of executives believe that being able to focus the story is a major benefit of this approach, while a similar number of business leaders (71%) specify it as very important when reporting results to the C-Suite or key stakeholders. A good business decision-maker knows that to make the right calls, they not only need the data right data, but also an understanding of how the data relates to their goals and strategies.

What’s the story?

This begs the question: if data storytelling is so useful and so well-established, why are so few truly committing to it?

Some of the reasons are logistical. Almost nine in ten business leaders (89%) suggested that faster access to data would help their organization make data-driven decisions. If you’re waiting for data to update, can’t make timely requests, or can’t trust the data you receive it gets harder see an accurate picture and create stories that reflect reality.

Others are based on the skills of the workforce. Data storytelling isn’t just about being able to work a data platform, but also about data literacy skills and the ability to communicate more widely. You have to understand the business context and the importance of the numbers, then be able to break that down into a pithy and compelling narrative. 

Finally, almost half (49%) of organizations feel that their staff lack storytelling skills – regardless of whether they work with data or not. A similar figure (47%) reckon they lack the time to dedicate to turning data into stories. Between the time and the skills, many feel that they can’t cultivate and share the stories that would really make a different to their organization.

Turn the page

Every organization is different, with different demands on each individual employee. But there is a significant proportion of the workforce caught between insufficient technology, a skills shortage and a lack of time to tell the stories they otherwise could. Crucial insights and opportunities are therefore being missed. 

At its best, data storytelling can provide universal truths that everyone can understand and not only empower those within the business to make data-driven decisions, but also bridge the gap between numbers and their real-world impact. Organizations need to assess their digital culture and day-to-day logistics to address this, investing in their workforce to empower them as orators and decision-makers.