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How to tell stories with data


Big data. Everyone seems to show an interest in it these days, but I’m not too sure everyone has properly understood it and the power it harnesses in unlocking fascinating stories.

Maybe the sheer scale and complexity it presents scared people off before they had really got to grips with it. It’s no wonder really as the variety, volume and velocity of data continues to grow. It is estimated there will be 5200 gigabytes of data for every human on Earth by 2020.

Despite this scary figure, data doesn’t have to be intimidating; instead it can be taken advantage of when it comes to unearthing and telling stories.

Although creating data-driven stories is nothing new, journalists have been capitalizing on data’s authority in stories for decades. But how do you take a leaf out of a hack’s book and start developing narratives from data that show you have a deep understanding of the subject and your audience?

1. 80% preparation, 10% great idea, 10% production
If you’re creating a survey from scratch, preparation is key to getting your story flow right. Identify what content your audience most wants to consume; from there you need to draw up a list of ‘key learnings’ you want embedded in the story narrative. You’ll then need to spend some considerable time constructing a survey that draws out the plot line you’re aiming for. The answers you receive may be unpredictable, and even disrupt your plot a little but forming a structure from the outset will make the creation and production of your story clearer and easier.

2. Navigating the numbers
Once your survey is complete you may find yourself drowning in a sea of numbers. But it doesn’t have to be as daunting as it sounds, just think of it as an editing process. Refer back to your list of key learnings – this will help you navigate your spreadsheet and pin down the stats that form the backbone of your story. Next you’ll need to order the information in line with your story flow, go through the numbers and ask if they reflect your initial predictions and plots. Don’t worry if they vary or don’t quite fit, you can decide to either leave some data out that doesn’t say much or include it but give your thoughts as to why the story has taken this direction (it adds transparency and honesty to the narrative). This filtering method will help shape and strengthen your story. Lastly, go back over the plot and question if there are any gaps – if you spot any, you can always plug them with third party data from a revered source. This will add more breadth to your story and solidify the point you’re trying to make.

3. The long and short story
When it comes to pulling the narrative together, it’s best to plan a detailed story and a shorter, more concise version. The long story should be a deep dive piece that adds analysis, commentary and opinion alongside the data. Snackable content has been popularized in recent years thanks to social media and audiences’ appetite for content on the go, so think about how you can deliver data as mini stories that can be digested at a glance (for example ecards).

4. Visualising data
Once you have a solid narrative, you need some visuals to complement it. There are lots of tools out there to help you achieve this –Ceros (a digital studio for content ranging from infographics and articles, to nanosites and ebooks), Google Fusion Tables (a simple tool that creates data maps and charts), (allows you to create sharable infographics, videos and interactive experiences).

It’s time to rethink the way you’re using data to gain a richer understanding of your audience and their needs. And thanks to the availability of extensive data, you can create more meaningful stories that have the weight and credibility to successfully engage and influence your audience on an emotional and logical level.