dogfood with data

My husband and I were watching TV one evening last week. One commercial caught my attention. It was a commercial for Eukanuba dog food. I do not have a dog. Still, there was something about the combination of music and video and text with a bit of data that left an impression. I find this commercial to be an excellent example of storytelling with data.

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lead with story

When asked to write a guest blog post for this month's focus on storytelling on the Tableau Public Blog, I spent some time reflecting: if I had just a single lesson to share, what's the #1 piece of advice I'd give in this space? I'd boil it down to three simple words: lead with story. The following is the guest post I authored.

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In this series of posts, the focus is on concepts you can leverage at the onset of the communication process (when you know what you want to communicate, but before you've actually started crafting the communication itself). Previously, we've covered the 3-minute story and the Big Idea.

Today, we'll focus on storyboarding.

Storyboarding is perhaps the single most important thing you can do up front to ensure the communication you're crafting is on point. The storyboard establishes a structure for your communication. It's basically an outline. It can be subject to change as you work through the details, but establishing a structure at the onset will set you up for success. When you can (and as makes sense), get buy-in from your client or stakeholder at this step. It will help ensure what you're planning is in line with the need and reduce downstream iterations.

My #1 tip for storyboarding is: don't start with your presentation software. It's too easy to go into slide-creating-mode without thinking about how the pieces fit together and end up with a massive deck that says nothing effectively. I highly recommend going low tech here: leverage a whiteboard, post-it notes, or plain old paper. Personally, I like using post-it notes when I storyboard, because you can rearrange (and add and remove) the pieces easily and explore different narrative flows.

In prior posts, I've used the example of the summer learning program on science. If we're storyboarding this communication, it might look something like the following:

Note that in this case, the Big Idea is at the end. Perhaps we'd want to consider leading with that to ensure our audience doesn't miss the main point, and to help set up why we're communicating to them and why they should care in the first place.

In my opinion, the communication process (whether you're communicating with data or otherwise) shouldn't start with the creation of the communication. Rather, it should start with reflection on the context. Who are you communicating to? What do you need them to know or do? Once you've answered those questions, leverage the 3-minute storyBig Idea, and storyboarding to set yourself up for success when crafting your communication and delivering your message.

what's the Big Idea?

In my last post, I discussed the 3-minute story and the importance of being able to concisely describe what it is you want to communicate (without reliance on your data and/or visuals). Today, we'll cover an even higher level aggregation: the Big Idea.

The Big Idea boils down the "so-what" of your overall communication even further: to a single sentence. This is a concept that Nancy Duarte discusses in her book, Resonate. She says the Big Idea has three components:

  1. It must articulate your unique point of view;
  2. It must convey what's at stake; and
  3. It must be a complete sentence.

In my prior post, I shared the example of a summer learning program on science and what the 3-minute story could sound like. If we condense that even further to the Big Idea, it might be:

The pilot summer learning program aimed at improving students' perception of science was successful and, because of the success, we recommend continuing to offer it going forward; please approve our budget for this program.

Bam. It's clear to your audience what they need to know and what you are asking of them. Some people think being verbose helps convince an audience of your knowledge on a subject, but this often has the opposite effect. It's difficult to be concise, but when you master it, it can work as evidence to your audience that you really know what you're talking about, because you know what's not essential and can boil your message down to its core.

In my experience, the entire resulting communication is better when the person delivering it has taken the time to be really clear on and made sure they can articulate the Big Idea. Note that if your communication medium is slides, each slide should have a clear Big Idea. Then there should also be an overarching Big Idea for the overall communication.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series on storyboarding.

the 3-minute story

In my workshops, the very first lesson we typically cover is on the importance of context. When you have some information you want to communicate, there are a few things that it's helpful to think about before you begin the data visualization process.

As part of this lesson, we discuss three concepts that I recommend employing for success when it comes to creating a communication - note that these apply equally well whether you're communicating data or communicating in general -

  1. the 3-minute story;
  2. the Big Idea; and
  3. storyboarding.

I'll cover each of these in a little detail in this and upcoming posts. 

the 3-minute story

The 3-minute story is exactly what it sounds like: If you had only three minutes to tell your audience what they need to know: what would that sound like? This is a great way to ensure you are clear on and can articulate the story you want to tell. Being able to do this removes you from dependence on your slides or visuals for a presentation. This can be useful in the situation where your boss unexpectedly asks you what you're working on, or if you find yourself in an elevator with one of your stakeholders and want to give them the quick rundown or get their feedback. Or in the situation when you are watching your time on the agenda wane as others go over their allotted time...from the initial 30 minutes, to 20, to 10, to 5... If you know exactly what it is you want to communicate, you can make it fit the time slot you're given, even if it isn't the one you planned for.

Let's consider an example 3-minute story. Imagine that I am a 4th grade teacher:

A group of us in the science department were brainstorming last year - it seems by the time kids get to their first science class in the 4th grade, they come in with this attitude that it's going to be difficult and they aren't going to like it. It takes a good amount of time at the beginning of the school year to get beyond that. So we thought, what if we try to give kids exposure to science sooner? Can we influence their perception? We piloted a summer learning program last summer that was aimed at doing just that. We invited elementary school students and ended up with a group of about 30 2nd- and 3rd-graders. Our goal was to give them exposure to science in hopes of creating positive perception. To test whether we were successful, we surveyed students before and after the program. We found that, going into the program, the biggest portion of students (40%) felt just "ok" about science, whereas after the program, most of these shifted into positive perceptions, with nearly 70% of total students expressing some level of interest towards science. We feel this demonstrates early success of the program and that we should not only continue to offer it, but also expand our reach with it going forward.

Stay tuned for my next post, where we'll discuss how to boil this down further into the Big Idea.