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The Book in Three Sentences:

storytelling with data book sheds some much-needed light on the fundamentals of data visualization and how to communicate effectively with data. Coles emphasizes the power of storytelling and teaches us the way to bring data to life by understanding the context of the business. This book highlights the simple yet powerful aspects of design that helps bring meaningful and actionable insights to the business.

Storytelling with data summary

This is my book summary of storytelling with data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

The story of the book revolves around one main concept,
✨” Don’t simply show your data—tell a story with it!”✨

Cole’s messages of “don’t be a data fashion victim” and “simple beats sexy” were powerful guides.

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 ✨ Understand the context

Build a clear understanding of who you are communicating to, what you need them to know or do, how you will communicate to them and what data you have to back up your case.

Employ concepts like the 3-minute story, the Big Idea, and storyboarding to articulate your story and plan the desired content and flow.

  • Pretty much anyone can put some data into a graphing application and create a graph. This can render the most interesting story completely underwhelming, or worse.
  • There is a story in your data. But tools don’t know what that story is. That’s where it takes us—the analyst or communicator of the information—to bring that story visually and contextually to life.
  • Exploratory vs. explanatory analysis explained with Oysters and Pearls analogy.
  • Concentrate on the pearls, the information your audience needs to know.

 ✨ Choose an appropriate visual display

First understand the context: What do you need your audience to know? Then choose a visual display that will enable you to make this clear. Below are some of the charts Coles recommend.

  • Simple text – When you have just a number or two to share.
  • Tables – To communicate various units of measure.
  • Heat map – To visualize data in tabular format but leveraging color to convey the relative magnitude of the numbers.
  • Scatterplot – Showing the relationship between two things.
  • Lines – Most commonly used to plot continuous data.
  • Slope graph – Useful when you have two time periods of comparison and show relative differences across categories.
  • Column chart – Easy to see quickly which category is the biggest, smallest, and the incremental difference between categories.
  • Stacked Column chart – Used to show the totals across different categories but also subcomponent pieces vertically.
  • Bar chart – Similar to column chart but horizontal, use if your category names are long.
  • Stacked bar chart – Used to show the totals across different categories but also subcomponent pieces.
  • Waterfall chart – Used to pull apart the pieces of a stacked bar chart to show a starting point, differences, and the ending point.

 ✨ Eliminate clutter

Identify elements that don’t add informative value and remove them from your visuals. Visual clutter creates an excessive cognitive load that can hinder the transmission of our message.

The Gestalt (six) Principles of Visual Perception help you understand how people see and allow you to identify and remove unnecessary visual elements.

  • Proximity: We tend to think of objects that are physically close together as belonging to part of a group.
  • Similarity: Objects that are of similar color, shape, size, or orientation are perceived as related or belonging to part of a group.
  • Enclosure: We think of objects that are physically enclosed together as belonging to part of a group.
  • Closure: The closure concept says that people like things to be simple and to fit in the constructs that are already in our heads.
  • Continuity: When looking at objects, our eyes seek the smoothest path and naturally create continuity in what we see.
  • Connection: We tend to think of objects that are physically connected as part of a group.

Regarding contrast, Colin Ware says, it’s easy to spot a hawk in a sky full of pigeons, but as the variety of birds increases, that hawk becomes harder and harder to pick out.

Clutter is your enemy: ban it from your visuals.

 ✨ Focus Your Audience Attention where you want it

Employ the power of preattentive attributes like color, size and position to signal what’s important. Use these strategic attributes to draw attention to where you want your audience to look and guide your audience through your visual.

  • Size: Relative size denotes relative importance.
  • Color: When sparing used, it is one of the most important tools you have to draw your audience attention.
  • Position: Without other visual cues, most of your audience scan their eyes in Z pattern.

Preattentive Attributes are powerful tools when used sparingly and strategically in visual communication.

 ✨ Think like a designer

Offer your audience visual affordances as cues for how to interact with your communication: highlight the important stuff, eliminate distractions, and create a visual hierarchy of information.

  • Form follows function: First, we want to think about what it is we want our audience to be able to do with the data (function) and then create a visualization (form) that will allow for this with ease.
  • Don’t assume that two different people looking at the same data visualization will draw the same conclusion.
  • Leverage preattentive attributes to make those important words stand out.
  • Offer your audience visual affordances as cues for how to interact with your visualization.
  • Highlight the important stuff and eliminate distractions.
  • Create a clear hierarchy of information.
  • Make it legible and clean.
  • Label and title as appropriate, so there’s no work going back and forth between a legend and the data to decipher what is being graphed.
  • Whatever data is required for context, but doesn’t need to be highlighted, push it to the background.
  • Employ attributes like color, thickness, size, position, labeling, text and annotation to emphasize and de-emphasize components throughout the visual.
  • If there is a conclusion you want your audience to reach, state it in words.

The more complicated it looks, the more time your audience perceives it will take to understand and the less likely they are to spend the time to understand it.

Make your designs accessible by not overcomplicating and by leveraging text to label and explain.

 ✨ Storytelling with data

When we construct stories, we should do so with a beginning (plot), middle (twists), and end (call to action). Conflict and tension are key to grabbing and maintaining your audience’s attention. We can utilize the power of repetition to help our stories stick with our audience.

End with a call to action: make it totally clear to your audience what you want them to do with the new understanding or knowledge that you’ve imparted to them.

  • Stories are magical and we can use concepts of storytelling to communicate effectively with data.
  • A good story grabs your attention and takes you on a journey, evoking an emotional response.
  • Aristotle introduced a basic but profound idea: the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • The main character in every story we tell should be the same: our audience. It is by making our audience the protagonist that we can ensure the story is about them.
  • No longer will you just show the data. Rather, you will tell a story with it.

The meta-lesson is that we can use stories to engage our audience emotionally in a way that goes beyond what facts can do.

Grab a copy of storytelling with data book.

P.S: Please help others learn the storytelling with data by sharing this post.

Want a pdf checklist of the best practices from the book?

Save trial + error and use this handy pdf to build the best compelling dashboards.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

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