How Data Stories Help Our Users Understand Truth – Joshua Smith

How Data Stories Help Our Users Understand Truth – Joshua Smith

Part of the DataVizLive interview series, exploring the conference sessions deeper, as well as showcasing other leading lights in Data Visualisation who are helping to improve how we use and present data for commercial success and social good.

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Allen Hillery

Social Ambassador, Tableau
Advisory Board Member
Data Literacy Project

Data Stories and the Power of Narrative

Allen Hillery talks with Joshua Smith about storytelling and narrative planning, following on from his excellent presentation at DataVizLive in May. The Tableau Zen Master and Iron Viz Champion expands on the concepts of empathy and rhetoric, and how they apply in the context of UX and Data Visualisation.

Missed the event? Catch up any time you like at DataVizLive On Demand.

Joshua Smith believes stories are powerful. A well-known influencer in DataViz circles, he brings a perspective that is influenced by folkloristics and decision sciences. I had the opportunity to chat with him a year ago while editing his piece, “Is Your Data Actually A Story?” for the Data Visualization Journal, Nightingale, where Josh posed the question of whether we’re really telling stories in Data Visualisation when they are devoid of main characters and a plot.

In his latest presentation for DataVizLive in May, entitled Story as Craft: Data and Documentaries, Josh goes beyond this and shares how we can apply narrative design to deliver a powerful experience to our audiences. What I enjoyed about his talk is the importance of using empathy to tell a compelling story. I found Josh’s use of metaphor to draw a comparison between data to documentaries to be something of genius, so I was excited to catch up with him again and explore this concept further.

Allen Hillery: In your presentation, you discuss ways to turn data analysis up a notch by adding empathetic experiences. This reminds me of advice I gave to my students on their presentations, which in this case was a solution for redistribution of Citi-bikes across NYC: instead of just doing a read-out on regression analysis, I encouraged them to craft a story. I thought it would be more powerful to show an executive audience how their project was going to help bike commuters get to work on time.

Joshua Smith: For sure! It’s important to remember that stories are a human quality, not a domain quality. Stories help us connect to each other, and they create paths for empathy. It’s not something that’s widely discussed in the various bland business and leadership books out there, but I believe empathy is one of the most critical skill sets of a strong business leader (even if that empathy isn’t always followed up with ethical behaviours, unfortunately). Empathy lets us relate to our customers; it lets us see their pain points and solve problems in ways they find valuable. Without empathy, we’re limited in our ability to predict and address our customers’ problems — and our services and products will suffer for it.

AH: I love your Robert McKee quote: “Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth, and how you emphasize that data isn’t the only way we get to truth.” Do you have any advice on how to apply this strategy in a business context?

JS: The “business context” doesn’t change the fact that we’re human. We’ve been using stories to tell the truth for far longer than we’ve been using logic. Stories let us see how truth plays out in real life, and the way truth impacts us at humans. For example, I can tell you that Hyperion, the tallest tree in the world, is 379 feet or 116 meters. But that number doesn’t bring the wonderment of standing at the foot of that tree. It doesn’t make your neck hurt as you tilt your head back to look for the top of the tree, it doesn’t take time as you walk around the massive trunk, it doesn’t chill your skin as it blocks out the sunlight, and it doesn’t feel rough and coarse like the thick-growth bark.

AH: Yes, that’s a great example of why numbers alone aren’t memorable when presenting a case or proposal. Storytelling is essential, even in a business setting.

JS: Yes, we still need this in business. Part of it has ethical implications: corporations are powerful, and sometimes we have to speak up on how business decisions may impact people in negative ways. But even outside of ethics, storytelling remains powerful: maybe I want to argue that the data shows we should implement a certain product feature. I can talk about projected click-through rates or revenue gains, but the “truth” may not come to life until I’ve told a story about how the feature would impact customers’ lives. Data is evidence, but alone it isn’t truth.

AH: What do you feel is key to a powerful story?

JS: In my opinion, the key always comes down to characters and the conflicts they experience. Struggle is part of the human condition, so if you can call to mind the struggles — and make your audience say “yes, I’ve experienced that, too!” — you can create that path for empathy, and let your audience really start seeing the demonstration of truth.

AH: Continuing with McKee’s quote, “Story is the living proof of an idea.” I think a lot of analytic presentations lack empathy, in the sense that the audience isn’t always able to relate to the “Why?” or “What’s in it for me?” What are your thoughts and advice for this?

JS: Humans empathise with characters. Not data, not analytic techniques, and not insights — but characters, with emotions, struggles and triumphs. All too often, the content of the story is the data and our methods, but calling this a story is absurd. If we think of a story as the logical flow of information, we’re divorcing the rhetorical power of a story from the word itself (not to mention that in communications as a discipline, the word for this is flow). Story is a technique, but not everything needs a story. Stories are powerful when we want to trigger empathy in our audience, when we want them to experience something they otherwise wouldn’t. If that is our aim, we need to give them powerful characters to relate to — or, make them the protagonist of the story. This means taking time to think through the elements of a good character: make the “human” condition visible. What does the protagonist want? Why? What’s stopping them from getting it, and how does that make them feel?

AH: For those who might be hesitant to implement stories in their analysis or don’t know quite where to start, crafting a story doesn’t mean you’re writing a novel.

JS: Correct, this doesn’t need to be a novel. We can accomplish this very quickly. Pixar creates characters that can make us cry with shorts just a few minutes long. Marketing firms and UX researchers will situate their analysis of a customer in profiles that outline concerns and goals and pain points. A good story doesn’t require a three-book-long narration of character development through a walk to Mt. Doom. Sometimes we can accomplish it with a simple photograph, or a quote. The key, though, is giving the character enough depth that our audience can on some level relate to them, and then empathise with them.

AH: Tolkien was definitely a master storyteller! Going deeper into stories, two terms that echo throughout your talk are “rhetoric” and “empathy”. Can you explain the importance they play in telling better stories?

JS: Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and it pervades practically every part of our communication. When we tell our children a folktale, there’s rhetoric (this is good behaviour, that is bad behaviour, etc.). When we protest and shout our chants, there’s rhetoric (this is important, this is right, that is wrong, etc.). And in analytics, when we collate our analyses into a presentation, there’s rhetoric (this is the best view of the data, this is what it means). Empathy is related to one part of the “rhetorical triangle”: pathos, or the appeal to the audience. Storytelling, as a rhetorical technique (or, rather, a tool for persuasion), can help trigger empathy. When we hear a well-told story, we relate to and empathise with the struggles of the protagonist. The power of a story is that we experience things we wouldn’t otherwise experience, and we can see things from a new perspective. It’s not just the protagonist we relate to — it’s also the conflict they’re experiencing and how they react to it. Conflict is a common human state (health, finances, death, aspirations, etc.), and that makes story a powerful vehicle for learning: through empathy.

AH: Do you see storytelling as an effective tool for both exploratory and explanatory analysis? Meaning, I think there is a consensus when walking an audience through the data that it should be done in a way that a broad audience can understand. However, what about data deep dives?

JS: Storytelling for exploratory or interactive analysis is quite different. We lose the ability to control the ordering of events and the depth of each moment — our audience may choose to look at something completely out of order, or spend a lot of time in one “scene” of a story. I still think storytelling has a place, but the application becomes very different. When designing an interactive dashboard, for example, I make the story about the user. The user becomes my audience. My dashboard, then, doesn’t “tell” a story per se, but instead becomes a tool that helps the protagonist overcome their challenges to accomplish their goal. Imagine a sort of fantasy story in which the hero needs to obtain a powerful sword to slay an evil dragon: the interactive dashboard is analogous to the sword. If I want to design a sword powerful enough to enable my users to slay their dragons, I need to understand who they are, how they work, and what challenges they face. Really, at the end of the day, this is similar to the User Stories method of product development. Rather than gathering static requirements, we frame the necessary tasks from the perspective of the user as a protagonist with their own conflicts. It’s a sort of narrative theory extension, a human-centred design that helps the designer assemble and think through enough context to make the interactive dashboard more powerful for the users.

AH: Who are a few of your favourite storytellers we should take note of, and why?

JS: Cory Barlog, Creative Director at Santa Monica studio. Cory was brought on to the new God of War video game. It was a masterpiece, but what inspires me so much about Barlog’s creative direction is the transformation in the protagonist. Previous entries in that video game series were violent action games featuring a revenge-driven protagonist, but the new God of War video game really asks me to see the same character from a different and deeper lens. Everything about the gameplay interface encourages this new perspective, from where the camera sits to how fast the character responds to my commands. Barlog isn’t just a master of imagining a story, he’s a master of making every part of a physical and digital experience contribute to that story in incredibly powerful ways.

Kevin Feige, President at Marvel Cinematic Studios. You may or may not like Marvel films, but I challenge you to find a movie series where the audience was willing to sit through 20 minutes of credits hoping to get a post-credits scene that provides a hint at what happens next. Kevin brilliantly coordinated the efforts of 15 different directors to create a holistic experience and narrative that just kept building momentum over the course of 22 films, spanning 10 years. You can argue about the aesthetics of those films, but the impact they had on public perception of comic book heroes – and the fandom they created – are demonstrable facts (not to mention the revenue generation!)

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar. Ed is actually more on the tech animation side, but he’s quite talented at inspiring creative, multidisciplinary teams. Ed Catmull has a long history of leading brilliant people to create some of the most inspiring work ever made. It’s worth noting that there’s some meaningful controversy around some of his business practices, so I take his leadership advice with a grain of salt — but his ability to really encourage the creativity in technical teams unlocked a new generation of animated storytelling.

I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with Josh; he emphasised that stories are a human quality that help us connect to our audience through empathy. I agree with him that empathy is one of the most critical skill sets a business leader can possess. I recommend you check out his talk on Data and Documentaries, available right now on DataVizLive On Demand.

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