Data Storytelling Skills Take on Added Clout


Data SorytellingBig Data and analytics experts such as Babson College Professor Tom Davenport are increasingly pointing to the importance of having an analytics team who are adept at communicating complex analytical findings in terms that business executives are able to understand.

For instance, in a recent keynote speech at the TDWI Executive Summit in Las Vegas, Davenport recommended hiring “translators who can tell stories with data.”

Davenport goes into more depth in a Deloitte article as to why data storytelling is so critical—and why so many people and organizations struggle to do this effectively.

Davenport notes that stories “have always been effective tools to transmit human experience,” in part because narrative offers people context, insight, and interpretation—“all the things that make data meaningful and analytics more relevant and interesting.”

One of the reasons that individuals and organizations are not effective at telling stories with data is because “analytics people often aren’t that motivated or successful at communicating with carbon-based life forms,” says Davenport. In addition, most analysts are reluctant to devote the time needed to craft a narrative from data while most analysts also probably didn’t receive a lot of instruction from college faculty members teaching quantitative courses or from other instructors.

In a related TechTarget article Andrew Storey, vice president of decision sciences at Scotiabank, says he hasn’t hired staff specifically for their ability to communicate analytical approaches and results with business users at the bank. However, he has relied on a handful of analysts who are better than others at leading the discussion around these topics.

Pamela Peele, chief analytics officer at UPMC’s insurance services division, does have a former journalist on her team whose job is to apply data storytelling techniques to help communicate the team’s analytical findings to corporate executives and business managers.

An effective storyteller “should be one of the first persons you hire for an analytics team,” says Peele.

For organizations that have difficulty in finding storytellers who can skillfully spin a yarn with data, data visualization tools can also help weave a narrative.

As Accenture points out, one of the reasons that storytelling through data visualization is effective is that “the human brain has a unique ability to perform pattern recognition. This is an important capability to leverage in addressing data because it accelerates understanding of complex situations, which is especially critical as companies strive to make decisions and act at digital speed in a constantly changing landscape.”