Blog post updated July 29, 2013.
I’ll never forget the Spanish words for yellow light bulb: bombillo amarillo. On the first day of his Spanish class at Harvard University Extension School, my favorite professor of all time, Douglas Morgenstern, brought in a big bag of items, dumped them out on the table, and taught us the names of things.
Professor Morgenstern structured his classes around the Destinos educational television program. Destinos took on the format of a telenovela (Spanish soap opera). There was romance and betrayal and all the other things that make up a good story. After a few semesters of Spanish classes I was able to travel around Mexico, soaking up the culture and communicating with people in even the most remote of regions
Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to teach, learn, and persuade. As social creatures, we love telling stories and sharing in a good laugh with others. It doesn’t matter how dry or boring or mundane a subject inherently is, if someone can tell a good story about it, others will listen and enjoy it.
The same is true with data. Numbers may look dreary in black and white rows and columns. But if you see numbers represented in colorful, visual ways and can interact with the images to find meaning – and, even further, if someone tells you a good story about the numbers, numbers can become the most interesting thing in the world.
I recently spoke about this with Mikael Jern, professor at Linkoping University in Sweden and director at NComVA AB Sweden.* Prior to its acquisition by QlikTech, NComVA was a QlikTech partner that specialized in data visualization storytelling. The company was focused on turning large statistical, scientific, and business data sets into shared knowledge with interactive data visualization, time animation, and storytelling.
Mikael Jern described the process of creating data stories using NComVA Statistics eXplorer – none of which requires programming skills. (See figure below.) The first step is data gathering. The person who is visually exploring and analyzing the data discovers something of interest. He then applies a visual snapshot with associate textual information to make the discovery and easier to understand. He creates a story using a set of tools for editing the story and creating snapshots. Once the story is completed, the storyteller can publish it on the web using Flash or HTML5 so others can visually interact and gain knowledge about the data.
I asked Mikael Jern what the difference is between visual data storytelling and simply talking from a PowerPoint slide containing bar and pie charts. He focused on the importance of the communicator being able to use interactive visualization and save snapshots showing data in certain states, or certain subsets of data, and provide an accompanying written or verbal narrative. The storyteller must be able to save all of these bits and pieces into a cohesive whole so others can “replay” them to read / hear the story in an interactive way. This is an important point because for most forms of storytelling, the author / creator isn’t in the same place at the same time as those who are reading or hearing the story.
Interested in data storytelling? See these related Business Discovery Blog posts:
• “Enchanting with Data,” May 30, 2012
• “Data Brings Joy to People,” May 24, 2012
• “Storytelling with Data to Rally Support for Your Position,” March 5, 2012
• “Storytelling with Data Helps Us Internalize Meaning,” July 21, 2011
• “Tell Me a Story,” May 25, 2011
• “QlikView and the Power of Storytelling,” March 8, 2011
* Update July 29, 2013: On May 6, 2013 QlikTech announced that we acquired NcomVA. We are in the process of integrating NcomVA's technology into QlikView.Next.