Understand The Data, Visualize It, And Story-Tell
As machines become increasingly accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development leader is to sharpen your skill and ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills critical to thriving in 2030. I have compiled a series of articles titled “eLearning Skills 2030” to explore the essential skills to help you future-proof your career and lead your team. This article explores the skill of data storytelling, why it is critical, and what actionable steps you can take today to improve it.
What Is Data Storytelling?
Data literacy pertains to the skill of understanding, using, and leveraging data, and includes several elements such as data visualization and data storytelling. Data visualization is the ability to depict data using graphs and visuals. Data storytelling is the presentation of the data using a storyline, a context, and a call to action for your audience. You can use data storytelling within your organization to report on a project or pitch a new idea, and externally with analysts or customers to describe the organization’s growth, product, and services.
Every leader needs strong storytelling skills  to convey their organization’s vision and inspire their teams. Storytelling is an art and science that relays context, challenges, actions, and outcomes. In his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning defines storytelling as more than an essential set of tools leaders need to get things done. He says that storytelling is a way for leaders—wherever they may sit—to embody the change they seek.
Why Is Data Storytelling Important?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the demand for data analytics skills will rise by 25% between 2020 and 2030. Being able to not only analyze and depict the data visually but also describe their story is vital. Research by Stanford University  shows that the demand for data storytelling has risen sharply, quickly becoming a must-have skill in many organizations that realize that business intelligence and advanced analytics improve every aspect of their operations.
How Can You Sharpen Your Data Storytelling Skills?
Data storytelling is both art and science. To effectively tell the story of your data, you must first understand the data and its context, then you have to depict it visually using the right tools, and finally, you can craft and deliver the story.
Immerse Yourself In The Data
Renowned movie director Spike Lee is an incredible storyteller. As I discuss in my article “3 Business Storytelling Lessons from Spike Lee,” Mr. Lee is a thorough researcher. Before creating a movie, he immerses himself in the context of his topic. He digs deep into the subject by sourcing and reading books and articles, listening to the music from that era he is studying, and reviewing related work, including movies and documentaries others may have done on the topic. Essentially, he immerses himself in the data. To understand their context, you must immerse yourself in the data you are examining.
Visualize The Data
Data visualization is a vital and in-demand skill. To visualize data effectively, you will need to deploy several tactics, including being deliberate, selecting the right tools, leveraging colors, and telling a captivating story to inspire action. There are several ways to depict data, so it is essential to discern the type of graph and the right tool to display various pieces of data. For example, in terms of charts, you can use a scatterplot or a line-column chart to demonstrate the relationship between two or more variables. To successfully visualize data, you need to select the right tools and platforms and be deliberate with the quality of the data, depiction, source credibility, and accessibility.
Craft The Story
Storytelling is also about creating an emotional connection with the audience. Lee says that he tries to avoid being formulaic when he crafts a story. Reporting data typically centers on business performance, trends, or demonstrating organizational change. With the layer of storytelling, your goal is to create an emotional connection with your audience using the data as the backdrop.
Scott Berinato, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, says that storytelling with data is not about PowerPoint slides and numbers but setup, conflict, and resolution. The “setup” is the current situation; “conflict” is the challenge we are faced with, and “resolution” is how we resolve the conflict. In addition to this three-pronged narrative arc, there are many ways to craft a storyline you can use to create an emotional connection with your audience .
A simple yet powerful structure I use when training first-time TEDx speakers are the big idea, three pillars, call to action. First, I guide speakers to distill their big idea and message to the world; next, I instruct speakers to identify three key elements and the data to explain and support them. The talk culminates with a call to action. Your big idea must address a business priority in a business context, usually to increase revenue, decrease cost, or mitigate risk. Your story can address these priorities. You can ask some of these questions: “What is the business problem are we trying to solve?”, “What is the value to the customer?”, and “What is the impact on performance?”.
Often, your story may seem controversial to audiences because it will highlight a challenge or a business problem many are not aware of or are not ready to face, such as lower-than-expected performance, rising costs, or higher-than-anticipated risks. In this phase, framing your data in its broader context is critical. Without proper framing, your audience may miss the big picture, and your story may convey a different message.
Without meaningful storytelling, data insights can remain buried in a spreadsheet or a database, unknown to your audience and key decision-makers in your organization. As a leader, you will need to strengthen your storytelling skills and encourage your team to do the same so that they can thrive today, in 2030, and beyond.
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