December 4, 2020
Data storytelling: a strategic business weapon
By handing over the baton of storytelling from generation to generation, people connect disparate narratives and build a whole that is the history of the humankind. This is the power of stories—to stitch separate events together and present them as a continuous thread embedded in people’s minds.
We are overflown with information. Each person with the internet access has almost anything at their fingertips—all they need to do is just make a query. To feel the ground amid the chaos, people tend to believe in the stories that are fact-checked or seem fact-checked. Words not backed by data are discarded as assumptions. However, when this assumption is proven with numbers, it becomes a mathematical construction that can’t be torn apart.
Following this lead, I’d like to tell you a story of how narratives coupled with data help businesses to not just make money for the sake of it but work out new meanings and unite employees around them. But, first:
Businesses believe they are making data-driven decisions. From where I sit, though, I see that the majority of businesses don’t have data strategies and their decisions are not driven by data, at least directly. People still make decisions guided by their inherent biases or gut feeling and use data for sheer decoration. It’s like trying to mix oil and water—they might be in one bowl but still apart.
In this regard, I see a few problems with data in a business setting:
All these problems stem from the absence of data literacy. A post-pandemic digital transformation requires employees at all levels to be able to read, transform, analyze, and question data, using it as building blocks for communication. It’s next to impossible to train each employee in data science so that they could utilize data to the fullest. However, people can learn the art of data storytelling to create accurate and memorable stories backed by data.
The art of data storytelling is in its ability to connect seemingly disconnected things and events into a solid continuous line of narrative that with mathematical precision can turn equipment into meaningful figures, employees into KPIs, and risk analytics into actions.
Data storytelling is a narrative approach to data interpretation and analysis, making business communication persuasive and memorable. People tend to remember how they felt about conclusions, not about the numbers used to prove those. So it’s safe to say that besides our native language structures, we’ve implanted another communication layer where each message is connected with data and becomes a building block for digital communication.
We need to understand how numbers signify words and vice versa, otherwise we can’t use analytical dashboards to communicate. That’s why data storytelling is a crucial weapon of data scientists, engineers, analysts, and decision makers alike.
Different businesses request our business intelligence consulting services for similar problems: they have loads of data but can’t read it, and their top management feels they don’t leverage data to its full potential. It’s true, companies create all kinds of narratives, from brand vision stories to strategies and monthly plans, but they have little idea how to connect these narratives with data, to align all the narratives with the company’s data strategy, and to ensure business continuity as a result.
Anytime I devise a business intelligence project plan, I investigate how stakeholders at each management level see data, understand their strategic goals based on their vision, deconstruct the goals into the smallest components fixed in time, and flag them for further control: are they up or down? are all the activities within their global goals? etc.
Based on my experience, each manager sees data in their own siloed way, disconnected from each other and from the company’s mission. It can be illustrated in the following way:
As you see, all these narratives seem related, but none of these managers and executives has access to a bigger picture. They frequently don’t understand how their KPIs are incorporated into the common narrative and how their contribution might help reach strategic goals (which in reality can be based on the founder’s vague inherent drive). Improving a KPI by 24% can’t be a strategic goal—it’s only one of the conditions for reaching this goal.
To solve this problem, we’ve worked out a data narrative approach that helps build a company’s data storytelling structure that pieces together fragmented states and events.
We view companies as ‘buildings’ of several ‘floors’, where each ‘floor’ represents a narrative held by a group of data users. To discern these narratives for our clients, we:
The art of data storytelling is the art of setting up exchange between these narrative ‘floors’ and getting through every word combination down to the data level, or pulling data together to get a certain word combination. Data in itself is an empty container that abides by mathematical laws, yet it starts resonating with people when combined with words and emotions.
Within the approach, we distinguish four narrative types that should be present in each company:
The master narrative maps everything the company is made of—people, events, attributes, projects, resources, etc.—and unites them into an undividable whole that will represent that company’s unique business landscape within a much bigger geographical and ideological context. When people have a detailed map that represents the true purpose of their efforts, they get familiar with the landscape they operate in and are ready for any turns. It lets them move competently from point to point or from deal to deal, draw up plans, create models, and so on.
A master narrative can be presented as a so-called ‘ideological’ line on the graph that represents the company’s ambition to make a big idea true. This line marks the history of how the company’s business has been progressing towards its strategic goals, with all its ups and downs. It allows viewing historical data from where it’s possible to see the horizon of the future events as well as comparing different periods. As a result, complicated processes based on loads of data turn into a visualization where each employee can see clearly where they invested their vital energy and how they should go on.
The company narrative is the mission and vision of a company. It’s a guiding myth, or a brand strategy. If a company doesn’t have such a myth, its employees are like tourists without a map. They wander aimlessly, and their energy doesn’t serve the company’s purpose, thus being spent in vain.
Companies with a strong strategy imprinted as a vivid image in everybody’s minds create purposes that stand the test of time and embrace data, processes, and people. Such companies don’t sell products, they sell a social image of a product packed with a story, and people want to own a portion of these stories, too. Think Apple, Tesla, Starbucks, Google, Lego, you name it.
Even though businesses have already realized the importance of storytelling, they don’t quite understand how to manage it. C-level managers are responsible for creating a meaningful horizon and nurturing it through company narratives. It will help charge people with emotions, inspire them to contribute to the company’s goals, and make them feel good when working for their brand.
As we’ve learned from the company narrative visualization above, employees usually feel highly energetic at the start of a project, but without a proper narrative that inspires and keeps them going, a team performance line inevitably goes down.
Processes that allow team members to rise above their daily routine are the ones keep them enthusiastic throughout the entire project. Highly aggregated team performance indicators or daily rituals like Scrum stand-ups are dry and static, while balancing qualitative effects with quantitative metrics makes team mechanics well-oiled. It works particularly well when a team is distributed and remote.
It works like this. Each team member has its own digital profile—a collection of data and personal metrics, which are then aggregated into the digital profile of the entire team. When team members know how fluctuations in their personal metrics can impact the metrics and digital profile of the entire team, they can work remotely at their own pace without compromising the team’s collective tempo.
The product/service narrative is a model that should react to the nuances of customer behavior and offer an action plan to address each situation, including unconventional ones. The pandemic has demonstrated that almost any service or product can be re-engineered to adapt to uncertainty. What you need to do is see the analytical value of data, act fast, and be empathetic.
To illustrate this, I’ll give you an example of such an empathy-centric brainstorm that results in a prompting prescriptive model for forecasting car loan repayment scenarios:
To illustrate how our data storytelling approach works in practice, I’d like to walk you through our data visualization project for a European car dealer.
My task was to inspire the company’s head of sales to switch from traditional flat Excel reports to an exploratory tool in the form of a dynamic operation control dashboard. In addition to demonstrating the tool logic and efficiency, I needed to evoke emotional response to the new tool. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet the customer in person, so I knew from the very start that my presentation should talk to him as if I was there at the table. It was to engage him emotionally with the new way of consuming data.
I studied the customer’s marketing materials over the last three years to pick up their own narrative and cultural codes, complete with the tone, language, and marketing tricks, and put everything into my own storyline to make it feel familiar and kind of playful from the very start.
As a result, I created a booklet to present our Tableau-based dashboard, and that booklet became a piece of narrative in itself, a so-called visual user manual. In it, I connected data with the stories about the effects of using the product, inducing pleasant feelings and emotions and showing the customer that it was something exclusive that he was going to own.
Here, the master narrative was directly connected with the aim of our dashboard—to allow controlling the viewing angle and seeing much more than you could before. Within the master narrative, we told a few stories that highlighted the key characteristics of our product:
The very first spread of the presentation booklet illustrated the process of deal making, from marketing campaign to purchase, based on the data I received from the customer. For the presentation introduction, I made a comic strip where I showed the deal-making roadmap that connected a customer journey and major data-accumulating touchpoints. This introduction served as a sneak peek at our exploratory tool and showed which touchpoints and associated processes became the foundation for our product.
The customer had 11 dealer centers with each having its own sales team. The dashboard allowed each of the teams to see analytics for their dealer center as well as for each sales rep, and compare their performance with other centers.
As the customer kept using the image of a steering system in their own materials, we decided to customize our dashboard like a steering system as well. I accompanied the image of the dashboard with annotations that described the product’s features (interactivity, filtering, aesthetics, integrations, etc.) and feelings users would have while using the product.
All in all, I took the customer’s own narrative and filled it with my own content and data stories. This approach became key to making the customer feel they were going to get something new yet familiar, something they knew inside out but this time tailored to their new project needs.
Every business wants to be a story of success. Usually, launching a company seems like the most difficult part, but in reality it’s much more complicated to keep it going and evolving while continuously supporting employees’ loyalty and enthusiasm. One of the most important factors in making it possible is retaining your company’s horizon in view at all times.
Here is where the need to master the art of data storytelling comes into play. Data storytelling binds different business states and objects together, helps make sense of corporate data, and leverage it in the most efficient way—all the while providing every employee with a clear view of the company’s vision and a map for reaching strategic goals.
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