The Allure and Danger of Data Stories

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“Data” and “storytelling” are an item. You see them together all the time lately.

When I first came across the term “data storytelling,” it instantly appealed to me. “Data” suggests credibility, information that has some objective basis. But data, to many of us, is boring. Its meaning is often uncertain or unclear. Or, even worse, it’s both. “Storytelling,” by contrast, suggests clarity, a plot with both excitement and resolution. So, by coupling these two words, we seem to get the best of both worlds. Data lend credibility to stories. Stories lend excitement and clarity to data.

Indeed, that’s the point of data storytelling. As Brent Dykes, a data storytelling evangelist of sorts, noted in a 2016 Forbes article, “Much of the current hiring emphasis has centered on the data preparation and analysis skills—not the ‘last mile’ skills that help convert insights into actions.” That’s where data storytelling comes in, using a combination of narrative, images, and data to make things “clear.”

But let’s step back just a minute. Why are we so drawn to stories? According to Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the answer is:  survival. Harari maintains that humans require social cooperation to survive and reproduce. And, he suggests that to maintain large social groups (think cities and nations), humans developed stories or “shared myths” such as religions and corporations and legal systems. Shared myths have no basis in objective reality. Reality includes animals, rivers, trees, stuff you can see, hear, and touch. Rather, stories are an imagined reality that governs how we behave. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal . . . “ Such “truths” may have seemed obvious to the framers, but Harari notes that there is no objective evidence for them in the outside world.  Instead, they are evident based on stories we have told and retold until they have the ring of truth.

So stories (in the past and present) are not about telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Instead, they are often about instruction: whom to trust, how to behave, etc. And we should keep this in mind when telling and listening to “data stories.” To serve their purpose, stories leave out a lot of data — particularly data that doesn’t fit the arc of the story. For example, you might not hear about a subgroup whose storyline is quite different from the majority. Or, indeed the story might focus exclusively on a subgroup, ignoring truths about the larger group.

Bottom line: listener beware. A story, whether embellished with data or not, is still just a story. And truth can lie both within and outside of that story.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.