Storytelling with data in Google Sheets

In her book “Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals“, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic highlights the importance of telling stories when presenting data. In the era of big data, companies have access to more information than ever before. But volumes of data alone provide little value without the ability to synthesize insights and communicate meaning. This is where the emerging practice of data storytelling becomes critical.

Since data alone means little without context, narrative and storytelling can make it much more compelling. By blending compelling narrative with visual data exploration, we can shape raw data into stories that inform and inspire.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into data storytelling and explore how to take data analysis from flat statistics to an engaging storyline that captivates your audience.

Storytelling with data: a data visualization guide for business professionals

In her book, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic aims to help business professionals effectively communicate insights using data storytelling. According to the author, presenting data is not just about charts and graphs but about telling a compelling story that resonates with the audience.

Here are some of the key ideas from the book:

The importance of context

  • Exploratory analysis helps you understand and explore the data to find insights. On the other hand, explanatory analysis focuses on communicating insights.
  • Know your audience and what you want them to know or do before visualizing data.
  • Develop a 3-minute story and a big idea to articulate the main message.

Choosing an effective visual.

  • Tables allow reading data but graphs communicate faster visually.
  • Scatterplots show relationships between two variables.
  • Lines connect continuous data over time.
  • Bar charts are common but effective for comparisons.
  • Avoid area graphs as humans struggle judging 2D space quantitatively.

Clutter is your enemy!

  • Clutter creates cognitive load and distracts from the message.
  • Use proximity, similarity, enclosure, closure and connection to tie related elements.
  • Focus your audience’s attention
  • Use preattentive attributes like size and color strategically to draw attention.
  • Color should be used sparingly on the important elements.
  • Be consistent with colors across visuals.

Think like a designer

  • Highlight the most important parts of the visual.
  • Eliminate elements that distract from the key message.
  • Aesthetics make visuals easier to use and understand.

Lessons in storytelling

  • Structure story with beginning, middle, and end.
  • Involve the audience, build context, present insights, and end with a call to action.
  • Use repetition to help your audience retain the message.

Storytelling with data in Google Sheets

Now we can put it all together and start telling stories with data. In order to engage the audience and tell a story, we will follow some of the principles presented in the book:

  • Understand the context 
  • Choose an appropriate display 
  • Think like a designer
  • Tell a story 

Understanding the context

Let’s say we need to secure increased investment in training and development for the sales team. As a sales manager, I will prepare a compelling presentation for upper management, utilizing data storytelling to illustrate how strategic training initiatives correlate directly with sales growth. We’ll begin by identifying the audience, figuring out what they need to know and how we can convince them to invest in training.

Who: CEO and directors.

What: Understand how investing in training and development can increase sales.

How: Show the correlation between training budget and sales.

Choosing an appropriate visual and thinking like a designer

Here’s the table containing the data we have collected over the last two years.

Storytelling with data 1

After performing some exploratory analysis, we have concluded that there is a strong correlation between training budget and sales. If presented in a table format, showcasing the correlation between the training budget and sales over time would be challenging, as the nuances of the upward trend and its impact on sales wouldn’t be as visually apparent to the audience.

Therefore, choosing the appropriate visuals can help the audience identify the relationship between these two variables. In order to show the increase of sales revenue, a simple column chart would be enough.

Storytelling with data 2

However, we need to show the audience that this increase in sales has been associated with a higher investment in training. In this example, we could use a stacked chart or a combo chart to convey this message.

Storytelling with data 3

This combo chart highlights the relationship between training budget and sales revenue. As you can see, this graph shows the audience that the money invested in training is little compared to total sales revenue. However, it’s not easy to identify a correlation between these variables.

By building a scatter plot, we can show the audience that there is strong correlation between money invested in training and sales revenue.

Storytelling with data 4

Telling a story

With just a few charts, we can tell a very compelling story to back up our argument that the company needs to keep investing more in sales training.

We could start off by asking our audience how important they believe it is to invest money in sales training. With that question in mind, we can build a narrative that would show them the correlation between sales training and sales revenue.

  • In 2021, there wasn’t an increase in training budget. Sales fluctuated in that year.
  • In 2022, there was a gradual increase in training budget. As a result, there was a steady growth in sales.
  • The combo chart shows that investment in training is very small compared to the return on this investment.
  • The scatter plot shows that there is correlation between sales training and sales revenue.

After presenting the data, the audience would be equipped with all the information they need to make an informed decision.

Conclusion

By telling stories, we can engage our audience and help them make sense of the data. Had we just presented all the data in tables and graphs, the audience wouldn’t be able to read the data so easily.

If you want to learn how to build an eye-catching dashboard, check out these articles on how to make bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, and scatter plots in Google Sheets.

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