The storytelling pioneers at This American Life say that something needs to be done every 60 seconds to propel the story forward. Basic and more advanced techniques include:
- Have interesting facts with a good structure.
- Create pages with a pyramid structure.
- Visual design.
- Metaphors and analogies.
- Find specific, concrete, relevant, detail and zoom in on it.
- Show and emphasize the story gap.
- Force the audience to participate.
Have interesting ideas and facts with a good structure
The most important way to propel a story forward is to make sure the underlying story is relevant. The chief way of doing this is to perform data reduction to find the story, recommendation pyramids to organize the findings, and a recommendation-first approach to structuring the narrative.
For more information, see:
Create pages with a pyramid structure
Each page in the debrief should be structured so as to make it ridiculously easy to see the point, allowing the reader to quickly get the overall meaning, and to dig deeper if they want. See
Visual design is another way to propel a story forward, be it by having a nice template, interesting illustrations, professional-grade visualizations, nice fonts, etc.
Metaphors and analogies
Metaphors and analogies can be excellent tools for communicating difficult ideas to clients. Other than thinking hard, it is not clear that there is any specific way to uncover them. I once worked with a researcher who was just amazing at them. He was often able to come up with good metaphors even when he didn't understand what he was describing. Unfortunately, his only advice was that he found they occurred when in the shower.
Making people feel things also propels a story forward. There are quite a few aspects to this:
- If there is a presenter, they should work to create a positive, enthusiastic, contagious energy. If presenting over zoom, this can be easily done by putting a big smile on your face, sitting on the edge of your seat, and leaning forward.
- Where emotion can be injected, this should be done. If something makes you angry, say it. Happy? Say it.
- Describing the emotions of the people whose stories are illustrated in the data.
- Relevant images that summon emotions.
- Motifs with some symbol meaning can be used to bring up relevant emotions or thoughts.
Ideally, the way that the story is told creates a moment of empathy at the beginning of the presentation: if you lead with the heart, the mind may follow.
One way of creating emotion is via empathy, which can be achieved by finding specific concrete detail and zooming in on it.
Find specific, concrete, relevant detail and zoom in on it
The problem of how to engage people on dry and difficult problems is a problem that podcasters and journalists deal with all the time. If reporting on famine in Africa, how do you do it in a way that prevents people from tuning out? An answer is to start with a super-specific story about one of the people affected by the famine and reveal specific details that allow connections to the audience - for example, illustrations of how their life is similar to that of the average audience - and surprising and perhaps funny things.
The secret is that the detail needs to be very specific, concrete, and relevant. For example, a story that starts with "I walked into the street and saw a cloud" is not so interesting. A better story is "I walked into the street and guess what I saw. A UFO!". Better yet "I walked into the street and saw a cloud. It was a cloud I had seen before. It looked just like the clouds I used to see, when I stood on the top bunk, looking through the 5-inch window in my jail cell."
How do we do this when presenting data stories? The expensive approach is to use qualitative research and videography. However, with a bit of creativity, it can be done with any quantitative data. (Although the ethics of this approach is debatable). It works as follows: Identify some observations (e.g., respondents in a survey) that illustrate some broad points you wish to make. For example, if you are studying bulk buying of chocolate, find a respondent in the data set who has purchased a surprisingly large amount of chocolate. E.g., maybe somebody purchased 9 giant blocks of Hershey's. Try and work out why they purchased the chocolate. Then, fill in all the "irrelevant" data (e.g., age, gender, where they live, occupation, etc. Then, choose some random photo from the internet and make up a name.
For example: "Camen Quadros is 36. She lives alone and exercises a lot. She's a doctor. She understands about health. Last week she went down the Wegman's on Amherst St, where she lives in Buffalo New York, and bout 9 giant Hershey's bars. That's right. Nine bars. And she's a doctor!" And then go on to explain why she did it.
The point of the specific and concrete specific detail is to hook the person in. That you've made some of it up (e.g., chosen the photo or the location of the store) isn't actually a problem, as it's not like the audience is going to draw conclusions from the specific detail. Rather, the specific detail is just there to get their minds in the right place, much like many great films of historic contain large fictional components.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, there is some debate regarding the ethics of the approach. If you are uncomfortable, the two alternatives are:
- Do full-blown ethnography or videography.
- Collect much more detailed information in your questionnaires.
Deep dive: Much of this section has been taken from various interviews by Alex Blumberg of This American Life, Planet Money, and Startup fame. Although I would stress that he does not advocate the creation of specific details! Another great example of this type of work is the podcast series Revisionist History which kicks off most episodes with a concrete specific story.
Show and emphasize the story gap
As discussed in Creating the Narrative of a Data Story, one way of structuring stories in non-data storytelling is to use the hero's journey. A key aspect of the hero's journey is the story gap, which is the distance between the abyss, where the hero is at their lowest point, and where they want to get to (their desired state).
The bigger the story gap between the low and high points, the more tension and excitement that is created in the story. When presenting data about consumers, there are often obvious ways to emphasize this story gap: the gap between what consumers are buying/consuming today versus what they would ideally like to be buying/consuming.
Force the audience to participate.
Creating audience interaction is another way to propel the story forward. For example, quizzes can be used, or the audience can be shown some data and given the challenge of working out its meaning. A particularly useful way of doing this is via interactive visualizations, where the audience is given the responsibility of choosing their own adventure. This has a variety of benefits:
- It renews energy levels.
- It's an opportunity for them to use their own knowledge and context when interrogating the data.
- The act of participating in the story creation gives them an investment in the whole process.
As an example, the data from a TURF study is embedded below. The user can change the selected flavors and see the resulting reach and duplication between the flavors.