Adobe Summit Breakout Session: Data Storytelling

This session was not very technical and really had nothing to do with SiteCatalyst specifically, but data presentation in general. As analysts we’re comfortable in the details and the numbers, so it can be hard to pull ourselves out of the weeds and remember that our audience doesn’t care about what segmentation logic we used, but “what should I do to make my business better?” This session had some good best practices for packaging up the data and putting a cherry on top. (PDF of the presentation can be found here.)

A few random quotes:

  • “We hear facts, but we feel stories.”
  • “If you lead with data, people’s shields come up. Dry, factual arguments are met with skepticism.”
  • “If you lead with a story + data, shields come down. The story allows people to drop their intellectual guard.

NOTE: Every single presenter must have been given that third piece of advice, because I swear the first 10 minutes of every single presentation at Summit was some useless, often unrelated tangent: ReportBuilder and U2, Discover and river surfing, etc.  So while I agree a story can be useful, I would argue the story needs to be RELEVANT.

A reminder on the basics of a literary story arc, and mapping those to a data story:

  1. Introduction / Setup:  background of current situation, identify main problem or opportunity
  2. Inciting Incident / Rising Action: share the findings from the data to reveal deeper insights
  3. Climax / Denouement: present major finding or key insight (a-ha! moment)
  4. Falling Action / Resolution / Conclusion: give recommendations

Some advice on visuals:

  • build the customer journey with visual elements (use screenshots of the site to remind audience what the visitor sees)
  • identify the right data (add context by comparing to another date range, another segment, etc.)
  • identify the right visualizations for that data (don’t get fancy because you can, 2D charts along common aligned scales are best for accurate comparisons, avoid pie charts)
  • remove unnecessary noise (no more than 4 lines in a line graph, if you must use a pie chart have no more than 5 slices and lump all “other” into 5th slice)
  • highlight what’s important (use colors, annotations, etc…don’t make the audience work to find what you want them to see)
  • make it easy to consume: “Never force your audience to memorize, organize, or calculate numbers in their head.” (omit unnecessary chart features, use clear labels and chart titles)

5 things to avoid which will derail your story:

  1. not knowing your audience
  2. using unfamiliar analytics jargon
  3. sharing too much detail  (be selective in what you share and don’t feel obligated to substantiate everything, the audience likely trusts our expertise and is not interested in the analytics process, only the insights)
  4. leaving out valuable context
  5. talking too much and not allowing time for discussion

And tips from a client who has a “Chief Storyteller” on staff:

  • get your point across, one point or illustration per slide, overall story should have a moral or lesson
  • when presenting to an executive, distill into how it will drive business, and two cocktail talking points
  • you don’t need to show the analysis, only the results (put the analysis in an appendix)

Ouch. That last one hurts. But it’s true. When it requires 25 data points broken into 10 segments trended over 13 months to find some insight, we want to show our hard work.  And as linear thinkers, we want to walk through the logic of how we came to our conclusion.  It’s a good reminder that sometimes the best analysis (even if it took 2 days and 5 pivot tables) can be distilled into one sentence…

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