The Art and Science of Data Storytelling
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The Art and Science of Data Storytelling

Great innovation processes are ones that establish context! It is less about streamlining, and more about a revelation, delivering impact, where you recognize it and say ‘that is it’. This art of revelation and delivering impact is the foundation of a good storytelling.

Let me start this post with an interesting conversation I had with a Head of Supply Chain Operations a couple of years ago. During the conversation, this executive shared his ideal Monday morning where, he comes to the office @ 9:00 AM, opens his mailbox to find out just one email that talks about, what kind of exceptions happened in the last 24-48 hours, what were the contributing factors behind it, what the coming week looks like, and what are the 3 prescriptive recommendations for him. This entire set of Insights should be articulated concisely and crisply in the email body with no PDFs, PPTs, and XLS as attachments. To have this Monday morning, I am ready to invest anything?

In this post, I am going to share some precious lessons learned over the last 20 years working as an analyst, consultant, and a storyteller for my clients. This post will talk about the top 5 constructs of a good data story and demonstrate both the art and science behind it.

    1. Empathize with your target Personas –

    Being relevant and humane is the key here. As an analyst, if we look at the semantics behind the term Persona, it has always been perceived as Individualistic; however, in the real world, it’s often a fusion of Business Function Specific and Individual-focused, and that brings the confusion during the storytelling process.

    For example, if you are setting up a Dashboard/Scorecard for a B2B Marketing team, are you going to stitch-up your story keeping the department needs in mind or, you will focus exclusively on the CMO role and try to be strategic. This differentiation is of utmost importance while designing the prototype of your dashboard/scorecard because, based on that, you would be shortlisting your measures, dimensions, data filters, default date/time granularity, and most importantly, the necessary column and row-level data security. In case of a CMO Dashboard for a B2B marketing team, the focus would be on the following key measures:

    • Marketing ROI
    • Average Revenue per Account
    • Customer LTV
    • Channel Cost per Acquisition
    • LTV to CPA Ratio
    • Traffic to Lead Conversion %
    • Lead to SQL Conversion %
    • SQL Closed Won Conversion %

    If your story is targeting the Individual (CMO) aspect of the Persona then, you need to be crystal clear about the Roles and Responsibilities of that Individual, their Department, their Weekly/ Monthly/ Quarterly KPIs, and most importantly, what is their definition of Actionability. Remember, by the end of the day, you want your Persona to trigger an optimization in collaboration with their team. If there is no trigger, then the story is just a GOOD-TO-KNOW factual observation.

    2. Bring Context to your Story –

    Being contextual means enriching your story in the dashboard with relativity, combining the core KPIs with adjacent measures, designing narratives by smartly positioning your KPIs, respecting the time-frame of the ongoing fiscal year, and factoring in the feedback shared during previous insights consumption. For example, in the above CMO dashboard, if we have to bring the Context then, we need to make the following changes to our story:

    • Compare the KPIs with the immediate preceding time-period as well as the same period last fiscal year.
    • Associating the core KPIs like LTV with metrics like Cost of Servicing per Account, Gross Margin per Account, Churn Probability per Account, Share of Wallet per Account, and Monthly/Quarterly Target Attainment per Account.
    • Now, when we publish the narratives against our charts in the dashboard, we need to be cautious about how we are arranging the metrics in our sentences because certain metrics are ratios while the others are independent. On top of that, specific metrics have cause-n-effect relationships among them, so; we need to smartly position our metrics in the narratives to make them easier and logical to consume.
    • Time-frame is the most critical aspect to bring the Context into the story because the CMO has to confront monthly and quarterly adjustments to the measures, fiscal ending, budget-cuts during the recession, holiday season, demand, and supply shock months/quarters, etc. All these moments during the financial year need to be captured to maintain the relevancy of your overall story.
    • Your target personas would always have feedback against your published story, and it’s imperative how you consider their feedback to optimize your tabular data model, underlying machine learning models, and the dashboard layout.

    3. Respect the hyper-connected world of your Personas –

    In this hyper-connected world, your target personas are consuming the insights through multiple devices having a varied screen size. Some of these consumption mediums have both push-n-pull-effect, while others have only push-effect. For example, Enterprise BI Platforms (Tableau/ PowerBI/ Qlik), Chatbots, Voicebots, WhatsApp, and Search are the mediums that facilitate interactivity with the Personas and build on the story collaboratively. However, Email Notifications, SMS Notifications, PPTs, DOCs, and PDFs have the push-effect only because the objective is to push the insights to a broader audience with no opportunity for a real-time closed feedback loop. So, it’s essential to understand the traits of each one of these mediums before we publish the insights.

    For example, if you are pushing your story to the mediums which have both push-n-pull effects, you can’t be Verbose. You need to focus more on articulating the facts and providing quick diagnostic insights because, both your canvas and attention time-span is short. In the case of mediums that have push-effect only, you have an opportunity to be verbose but, the focus should be more on anomalies, causal factors, and making smarter predictions. Based on our experience working with large enterprise clients, try to be less tedious, and always have an executive summary associated with your dashboard.

    4. Fusion of Facts, Anomalies, Causal Factors and Time-Series Forecasts –

    For your executive dashboard to be actionable, there has to be a smarter fusion of Facts, Anomalies, Causal factors, and Time-Series Forecasts. In the case of Anomalies, call out both the point and contextual anomalies in your dashboard. To expedite the Action TAT, classify your Anomalies as Expected vs. Un-Expected. Try to articulate the causal factors behind your Anomalies in the form of narratives that should be associated with your trend-line or box-and-whisker plots. In the case of Forecasts, always combine them with actuals for variance analysis. To make your forecasts more actionable, explain the variance in the form of narrative insights.

    5. Smarter Data Filters –

    As soon as the executives start consuming the story, the very first action they take is the filtering of the default view of the dashboard storyline by applying different filters. Below mentioned are some of the fundamental filters that should be a part of every dashboard:

    1. Time Period
    2. Market/Country
    3. Channel
    4. Audience Segments
    5. Category
    6. Brands

    Here are some essential tips for deciding what filters to choose for your dashboard:

    • Pick those dimensions as your filters, which have a lower cardinality. Based on our experience, the higher cardinality filters are rarely used, and can also negatively impact the load time of your dashboard.
    • Time-Period granularity is the most critical filter, so while setting up this filter, you should adhere to your Persona needs. If your Persona has weekly and quarterly goals, then your Time-Period filter should have values like Current Week, Last Week, Last X Weeks, Current Quarter, Last Quarter, and Last X Quarters.
    • Don’t add more than 7-8 filters per dashboard because more filters negatively impact the load time of your dashboard.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and in the end, I want to conclude this post by saying that,

If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.

To learn more about our Data Storytelling capabilities, and how we collaborate with our clients in generating relevant, contextual, actionable and human-friendly insights, please visit the Products section of our website and explore Course5 Discovery – An AI-based augmented analytics platform.

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Sushant Ajmani
Sushant Ajmani
Sushant has over 20 years of experience in the digital analytics industry with a strong background in Customer Analytics, Marketing Analytics, and Logistics Analytics functions....
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