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Data Storytellers: Making a Story Meaningful

Say "data story" to data people, and most say "visualization." Why, then, do observations of data storytelling by a Tableau co-founder and a second Tableau executive go beyond visualized data?

I've been looking for a durable but flexible definition of data story, one that would accommodate the entire genre. What better place is there to look than at the annual conference put on by Tableau Software, one of the mothers of data storytelling?

A few years ago, Tableau gave data storytelling the official embrace, then it let it go feral. So it has, along with the assumption that it's about data first and story if there's time. My iPhone buzzed with a reminder of this: Amazon notified me that a book had shipped on data storytelling with a clue to the author's definition in the subtitle: "visualization." Before that, a Tableau champion I've known for years told me, "You can hardly show a visualization without telling a story." He chuckled as if to show the utter clarity of his insight.

Granted, storytelling morphs to fit every new technology. I still wonder, though: how many of the so-called data stories are a story in any way at all? The visualizations are as nice as ever, but few are more than charts on parade. Longtime storytellers look at them and wince, laugh, or just turn away. These data people, they say, have happened upon this grand storytelling party and assumed it's for them. Look over there, go the whispers, the newbies think they've invented storytelling!

Then I came across Pat Hanrahan, alone in the stands waiting for a keynote to begin. He's a Tableau co-founder and its chief scientist. From his work at Pixar Animation, he's the only data industry executive with an Oscar. Three, actually. "You really get the best views up here," he said, and he really does have one of the best views I've heard. "Life unfolding before us is a 'story,'" he wrote later in e-mail to me. Though his Oscars were for animation technology, he's nevertheless had to think a lot about storytelling at Tableau. "Our brain is designed to parse stories. A 'story' is just an edited version of something we might have seen."

If our brain is wired for stories, finding a definition is like asking a fish for a definition of water. What water? I might be better to ask what a good story does. If, as Hanrahan says, a story is just an edited version of what we know already, then it's all about the editing -- the selection and portrayal of the elements.

Authenticity and Meaning

Though his list of story elements is informal and far from definitive, he does point to a few story basics. For one, it has to at least seem authentic. Hanrahan wrote, "Any inconsistency we see in the real world means that something we are assuming is probably not true. That will attract our attention for a while, but once we break the illusion, we quickly deduce that it's all fake."

Though Hanrahan didn't mention it, this sounds like a theory Walter Fisher wrote about in the 1980s. People use "narrative rationality" to judge stories based on two criteria. Narrative coherence is a measure of a story's logic and consistency and how well it makes sense. Narrative fidelity is a comparison of the story with our own beliefs and knowledge.

A story has to be meaningful, writes Hanrahan. This jibes with Robert McKee's widely read book on screenwriting, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997; Harper-Collins) Stories that grip us have high stakes. A story about annual sales makes a stronger story than one about quarterly sales, but neither can match one about the CEO keeping his job.

Explanations versus Stories

Another Tableau executive doubts a data story's ability to have the full power of traditional stories. Vice president of research and design Jock Mackinlay breaks "data story" into two types: stories that "speak to the human condition" and stories that are mere explanations of data discovery. He wrote, "A story involving data is stronger than an explanation involving data" because of the story's emotional connection.

True, explanations of data discovery won't ever be compared to Shakespeare or even a good Le Carré novel, but they still have power. I confess that data by itself, no matter how pretty the chart, does little for me, but watching a good data analyst cycle through data, getting results and asking new questions with each pass and describing his thoughts along the way, can actually be exciting. Good stories can come out of Tableau's "Cycle of Visual Analysis."

Think of the data as a rock that's been carved by water. What easiest to see is the rock, but the real story is the water. That is, there's the data and there's the story about where the data got here and how it was formed. Data sits; stories move.

Still, how do you learn to edit that discovery into a story so it connects emotionally? Go see what you can learn from those who live in stories: journalists, graphic artists, cartoonists, and filmmakers, among others. See what works for you and define "story" for yourself.

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist in the business intelligence industry. He’s looking for anyone who tells stories with data or even thinks about it, and those who receive such stories. He’s researching best practices for storytelling with data, careers, reactions to storytelling with data, and possibly other issues. He asks that you contact him at with a line or two about your involvement with data stories.

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