Research Spotlight: Telling Stories with Data

Over the past decade, there has been an increase in data-focused job opportunities for our social sciences students. Several programs are revamping analytics to produce effective data scientists for enterprises. Students are well-aware of an increase in the importance of data literacy and have shown great interest in learning it. Being literate with data and able to explain its meaning has become a much-needed skill in a wide range of professions. From my experience working with our undergraduate Honor Theses, students are eager to run regressions and show their data charts. Our students are well familiar with data visualization to explore topics, ask questions, and analyze information. We are doing a great job teaching students how to collect data, run statistical tests, apply theoretical frameworks, and create visualization. However, their visualizations often fall flat. Charts are not expanded beyond numbers and translated into insights. Charts and result tables are typically very complicated aiming to showcase technical proficiency but cannot explain what they intend to reveal.

Data story telling is a process of creating a story using data. It guides audience to interpret complex data and draw attention to key insights revealed in the data. It presents logics and facts in a more engaging, memorable way. Data stories are helpful in business decision-making when insights are hard to understand. The successful data storytelling needs effective visual, relevant data, and engaging narrative to give numbers a convincing voice. The data story telling is goal oriented. Students need to identify the main objective that they try to emphasize using the data visualization. Before telling a story, they need to ask: what questions will be answered in my story? Being proficient with data story telling means that students must determine what important and not important to their audience to keep things simple. Decluttering noises out of the charts can draw attention to the narrative they try to build. Many students are unaware that some charts work better than another for specific purpose. Different shapes, positions, colors, and contrast can emphasize relevant information. Labels and titles convey important narrative of the data. Furthermore, good, useful data needs to be organized and delivered within a coherent story. The arrangement of the charts could create a proper sequence and effective flow of storytelling with the setting, rising insights, Aha moment, solution, and next steps. Since data story telling can highly impact decisions, it is important to present the information without injecting personal bias.

Teaching students how to build a story around data visualizations is a great way to help them connect concepts learned through data interpretation and writing. How to deliver the insights of the data to the audience is a skill set that is needed to be trained. In the Department of Economics, the Applied Master’s Program focuses on training students to become effective data communicators. For undergraduate students, the Honor Thesis is a great way to teach students about how to communicate and present their insights clearly. In addition to data analysis and research methods courses, we can integrate data story telling into our other undergraduate courses. To show students how others do it, there are several powerful examples that students can learn from. OurWorldinData.com, FRED Interactive, and gapmider.com have many data charts with explanation for students to explore. Tableau is a powerful online data storytelling tool. Furthermore, we can ask students to generate charts of an assigned topic from online database and write interpretation of the charts. We can provide regular exposure to data visualization and discuss how to create an effective data narrative. In my class, data storytelling is presented in a 10-minute, data-driven conversation once a week. The discussion draws student attention to why the chart matters, what information the chart tries to communicate, and spot the limitations of the chart. These exercises help students become comfortable representing their data visually while drawing a compelling narrative.

Data storytelling can help our students differentiate themselves and add value in a creative way. As we enter a new era for data analysis, reporting numbers and mundane analytics are performed by AI and computer software. Story telling is more powerful than presenting raw data to the audience. When data is relatable and relevant to the audience, it bridges analytics to emotional side of human brain and inspire actions. This non-technical skill ensures that all hard work and quantitative analysis can be effectively communicated and meaningful to the audience. Knowing how to tell a data story is critical to ensure people will take action on the findings.

Dr. Onnie Norrbin is a Teaching Professor of Economics and Director of Asian Studies at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Norrbin here.

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