How to uncover a data story

The role of Data Storyteller often falls on the person already knee-deep (or even completely submerged) in data. They have cleaned it, transformed it, explored it, visualised it, analysed it, modelled it, and now they have to use it to ‘tell a story’.

But to raise one’s head out of the detail of data, with the intention of focusing on just one of the many possible narratives, can be a very hard thing to do. Sometimes the deeper an understanding of a topic, the harder it is to tell just one story. One will try and incorporate as much information as possible, creating a very jumbled and often non-existent ‘story’.

I’ve seen this. I’ve done this. And from all of my learnings, I've developed my way of uncovering a story (or at least the elements of a good story) amongst the data noise.

You can download my “Uncovering a Data Story template” here.

How I’ve used this template

Credit to my father-in-law, we were having a conversation about an article he read on the Green Sea turtles living near Australia. It claimed a changing climate was causing the animal’s own biology to threaten their existence. [Turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination, which means as their nest temperatures increase so does the proportion of female hatchlings. Increasing global temperatures has resulted in less and less males].

I knew there was a data story in here somewhere, so I read a lot of scientific papers to try and uncover it. But after following many information rabbit holes (some which lead as far as other species) I used the template (completed below*) to highlight only what I needed to craft a narrative.

* the original template had far more scribbles!

Character: Who will the story focus most on? This can be your business, a customer group, a product, a country, or an animal (in this case).

Event: What happened to the character (the Green Sea turtle) to make their story worth telling now? Most business stories are built around a character change or a difference between characters. Focusing on a single event will help to keep the resulting narrative concise and compelling.

Event period: If an event has occurred, it’s occurred over a certain period of time. This could anything from billions of years to milliseconds, depending on the event affecting the character.

State before/after: Data is helpful here to describe the character’s state. Ideally, you want to include information showing the change in the character as a result of the event.

Impact: What kind of an impact does the event have on the character? The more impact the event has (positive or negative), the more powerful the story could be.

Reason: Why did the event happen? Sometimes this can’t be explained, which is okay if the narrative states this.

Reaction: Is there anything that could be done in the future to continue a positive impact or reverse a negative impact? This may or may not be able to be told from a data level.

Background: This section involves an understanding of the audience you’re attempting to communicate with. What is their current level of understanding of the topic and what other information do they need to know to be able to understand the character or event? In the Green Sea turtle example, a reader first needs to know turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination and what this phenomena actually is.

Here is the resulting high-level narrative based on the above completed template:

“The sex of a baby green turtle is determined by the temperature of the nest it develops in. But a warming climate is altering this temperature-dependent sex determination process. Therefore, there is an immediate need for nest management strategies to avoid a green turtle population collapse.”

Any data not supporting this narrative, is not included in the final graphic. You may find as you start to fill out the template you have enough information for multiple stories, so fill out more than one copy of the template and tell the stories separately.

The final graphic produced from the Green Sea turtle template and narrative example can be seen here.