Storytelling With Data

Storytelling With Data

June 26, 2017 | Julie Halverson, Associate Director of Research and Evaluation, NCCD


Our brains receive massive amounts of data every day. With information coming from news outlets, social media, friends and colleagues, how can anyone possibly remember what they see and hear?

The answer: stories.

Storytelling may sound a bit folksy to be compatible with using data, but brain science tells us otherwise. For example, our brains can take in data or bullet points on a PowerPoint, understand them, and then immediately stop caring. Our brains are not wired to retain data points for very long—they are wired to understand and retain stories.

Storytelling engages a part of our brains that is active only when we are experiencing something. Research suggests that when we are engaged in a powerful story, our brains are releasing chemicals. Oxytocin is released if the experience is pleasing or hopeful. Cortisol is released if the experience is suspenseful or scary. The more engaged we are, the more willing we are to take in the details and remember them.

We need to connect numbers to a context to really understand what the numbers mean. We use stories to do this.

Stories don’t lessen the importance of data—storytelling and data can be equal partners. Numbers anchor a story and give it legitimacy. We need the story, but we also need the data for the story to be convincing, credible, and objective.

At the same time, stories are remembered better and for longer periods of time than a bunch of numbers or a recitation of facts. A story works best when it requires the listener to think and make connections between, for example, cause and effect.

The ability to visualize data and tell stories is crucial to turning it into information that can be used to make decisions. In general, we aren’t good at telling stories with data. We need tools to help demonstrate what we most want to express. Good visual representations of data can help tell stories and increase understanding of relationships between data and how to make it useful.

For example, let’s say I wanted to talk about progress in juvenile justice reform and the need to continue down that path. I could share the following chart that shows data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention regarding the decreasing population of youth in residential placement:

Number of Youth in Residential Placement

Or, I could share the graphic below, based on the same data, while telling the personal stories of two youth sentenced for very similar, non-violent crimes: one who was placed in a detention facility and one who received alternative, community-based sentencing. As I talked about their differing outcomes and the chances of each youth transitioning to a successful adulthood, my audience would connect that 53% reduction to positive outcomes related to reform.

Key Takeaway

My best tip for illustrating a story with data: Keep it simple. Our brains can quickly recognize simple patterns, but computing takes longer. Keep text to a minimum. A good graphic is better than a bar chart; a bar chart (of five bars or less) is better than a pie chart—as shown in the next set of charts.

Race-Ethnicity of Youth in Gangs

Race Ethnicity of Youth in Gangs graph

In these examples, which use the same 2008 data from the Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, it’s difficult to distinguish between the sizes of the two smaller pieces of the pie chart until you read the labels. In the bar chart, it is easier to recognize numbers and differences and to immediately grasp the key takeaways.

Don’t just present data. Data are important to a good story, and stories are important to understanding data. Use both to engage your audience in thinking and to move them to action.