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How do we choose the most effective display medium for our data story?

April 29, 2019

Well told data stories are change drivers within the modern organization. But how do we choose the most effective display medium for our data story?

Should we use a dashboard? A PowerPoint deck? An infographic? Perhaps something else?

The answer is pretty simple. Choose the media that makes your data story more understandable for your audience.

The audience is the hero of your data story. And it is up to you as the storyteller to choose a storytelling medium that best communicates what your audience needs to know. Whilst your colleague Todd wants you to use Tableau because your team finally got a Tableau licence last month, your audience may very well be better off with a PowerPoint deck. Whilst it is fashionable to deride PowerPoint in 2019 (I have a colleague who says ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’), there is a reason that many of the best storytelling TED talks utilize PowerPoint slides: they are extremely effective visual storytelling aids.

The aim of a data story is not just to present facts. The aim is to present facts in a way that influences decision making. The power of storytelling allows us to take dry data driven facts and weave them into something that is engaging, meaningful and spurs action. When done well, data stories get our audience to feel something. And in an information saturated world, executives often need to feel something (whether it is urgency, the need for security, excitement, fear of missing out etc) before they decide to take action. In most cases, the storytelling media that best follows the millenia old chronological cadence of human storytelling is a PowerPoint deck, which naturally stages your data story into a beginning, middle and end. Another option is the browser based ‘data scrollytelling’ display, where the storyteller scrolls down in a web browser as various stages of the story are revealed.

Now if my audience was a detail oriented person who wanted less of a data story and more of an automated report, then perhaps I would go for Tableau or Power BI. But at that point, I’m not really telling a story, I’m moreso creating an interactive tool that allows my end user to pull out the stories they want. I am at that point not a storyteller – I am a product designer and the user is the storyteller.

In summary, design for your audience, and don’t be afraid to use PowerPoint.

Sorry Todd.

Image: Isaac Reyes at the Open Data Science Conference, by Jiayao Lyu.

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