The art of gathering data and extracting meaning from it is a valuable asset in virtually every industry, from retail and consumer packaged goods to media and investigative journalism. No one is more familiar with the power of data than Cheryl Phillips, a former data journalist and a Stanford Hearts professional-in-residence. In Phillips’ on-demand webinar, she shares a few of the insights she’s gained over her long career, explaining how to mold raw data into a compelling story.
Step 1: Understand your data
When delving into large swathes of data, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by information overload. What’s the best way to pull out the most riveting insights and put the pieces together to form a coherent narrative? Phillips suggests two key steps:
- Look for overall patterns in the data and find the biggest trends
- Identify outliers that might point you toward interesting stories
She also notes that although it’s important to be as accurate as possible when presenting data at the outset of a project, when it comes time to craft a story, it’s important to share only what’s relevant. For example, rounding up $5.97 to $6 might help to better communicate the main point of the story without cluttering it with unnecessary details.
Step 2: Craft your story
When spinning your data into a compelling narrative, always frame that information within its broader context. If you don’t properly contextualize your data, you might miss the bigger picture or, worse, tell a fundamentally inaccurate and compromised story. To address this, Phillips recommends avoiding small snapshots of figures. Instead, present a long view of that data to fully illustrate its implications.
In the webinar, Phillips cites a case from her career at The Seattle Times in which she found discrepancies in Seattle’s government payroll. Initially it appeared that there was intentional inequity in pay, but further investigation into long-term trends led Phillips and her colleagues to realize that the departments with higher payrolls had renegotiated their contracts before the Great Recession, allowing them more negotiation power than departments that had waited until after the economic downturn began.
Step 3: Visualize your data
Charts, graphs and diagrams provide an important visual aid that will help tell your story. Phillips notes that these representations of data can also offer information that might highlight secondary narratives or conversations that, although not crucial to your main point, could be interesting stories in their own right.
Your visuals should also match the theme of your story. Working with a professional designer who understands how different visual elements invoke various emotions and moods will help strengthen your overall message and narrative.
Ready to dig even deeper into collecting, framing, and presenting data? Enroll in Phillips’ online, self-paced course, Data-Driven Storytelling: From Evidence to Impact.