Six Practical Ways to Implement Data Storytelling in your Consulting

narrative design elements to use in data storytelling
narrative design elements to use in data storytelling

Examples, tips, and best practices for implementing data storytelling

Recap of the previous part of the Ultimate Guide to Data Storytelling

In part one of this guide to data storytelling for digital marketing and data consultants, we discussed:

  • What is data storytelling?
  • What are the elements of data storytelling?
  • Why is data storytelling so important and why is it often overlooked?
  • What are the components of successful data storytelling?
  • What are the benefits of incorporating data storytelling in your role?

I left you with a checklist for validating your data story, as well as a few additional guides and resources.

In this part of the guide, I’d like to go over the six practical ways to implement data storytelling in your consulting role.

If you prefer to watch this in digital format, feel free to head over to YouTube for Part II of this guide, starting at the 14th minute of the video

Incorporate data storytelling by utilizing the three elements of narrative design into your performance reports

In this section, we’ll talk about how you can set up your data stories to utilize the three elements of storytelling. When it comes to your data narrative, there are three main elements that you need to think of – the setup, the conflict, and the resolution. 

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According to Harvard Business Review

  • Setup – a reality, is a situation that happened (can be fictional) but it’s the reality, created for the story
  • Conflict – An event that changes reality. Without this element, there could be no storytelling.
  • Resolution – The new reality that the conflict creates.
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The reality is the situation, which is created for the story you are telling as part of your performance reporting. A conflict is an event that changes reality. As an example, in organic marketing, a conflict can be an algorithm event, or a recent resignation, which changes the dynamics or pace of the project. As you build the conflict, the tension rises as an emotion. Without change, there is no story. The resolution is just the new reality that the change creates. 

How to use storytelling to incentivize decision-making

Consider the before and after from the example below, taken from this great tips and tricks guide on data storytelling.

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When we look at the before chart we can see the tickets received and the tickets processed, but we don’t really know the context of what happened there. We don’t really know why is this important, why we should be paying attention to this, and so on. It’s very difficult to grasp the next steps, and the visual doesn’t help with demonstrating what the desired state for this data should be. 

In the after example, we see several changes that help promote decision-making and utilize the different narrative elements that we discussed in the previous section: 

  • set-up – through January to May the tickets received were processed
  • conflict – using an annotation in the chart, we demonstrate a key event that took place in May, which changed the reality: tickets are no longer processed when received
  • resolution – by using the text elements surrounding the chart, such as the title and descriptions, we can convey the desired action needed to resolve this discrepancy

From this example, we can highlight not only the practical elements of building the narrative into the reports, but also the importance of choosing visualizations that help convey meaning, and help highlight patterns, as well as the importance of strategically utilizing elements like annotations, text, and titles to add commentary, or recommendations for next steps to resolve bottlenecks

How to use data storytelling to emphasize conflict points

Let’s discuss how to use data storytelling to emphasise conflict points between the performance and the strategy, goals or KPIs. Note the example charts in the graphs below – in them is displayed organic performance in the context of all sessions, but we can also see it in the context of social sessions and referrals. There are different spikes in all sessions, which means that there is value in knowing and highlighting these as conflict points. What we can determine is that organic sessions mostly come from blog posts, however social and referral traffic, is generated by resources. vkxYF3ZiWwfltLcPPZwYn0 JFDFa N1wL3 CQYppxiJqSrc33q 6uvm5B4INW0YYjACZZYRBrLlsXHoW AdizHISW9BKCYLS33uXyarMlXxFY3Xh1ZMrlmWZbXWKCkQLGg i5qR4BuqGlDhyOWT9irI

Using these insights, we need to know both our stakeholder, and to have context on the goals and KPIs in order to determine the story, and next steps. Let’s consider the two examples: 

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  • For a client, for whom brand awareness and authority are key performance indicators, we can highlight:
    • Value-based approach for users building loyalty – proposing the creation of more resources
    • Resources create social mentions – proposing the promotion of resources on socials more heavily such as via paid initiatives, as people have thus far (organically) responded well to them
    • Resources lead to more links – Having the context of how important authority is in terms of backlinks on other websites, we can suggest authority programs
    • Resources can create virality and brand awareness – proposing strategies to further assist with the shareability of these resources and improving the competitive positioning and placement
  • For a client, for whom organic traffic and growth are key performance indicators, we can highlight:
    • Blog posts lead to more traffic overall – should there be more investments made in this area?
    • Traffic can overtime convert, not necessarily – proposing initiatives for CRO enhancements to help generate customers
    • Many new users, not repeat users, or sharing content – proposing strategies for user retention
    • Current content performs well but might be too top of funnel – proposing a content strategy aligned with a full-funnel approach 
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You can very quickly and easily see how the story can help you not only understand the data better, but also connect with your stakeholders as a result of your understanding. 

How to tie your data story with the projects you’re working on

How many times have you been in this situation? 

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The client is asking why the goals have not been hit for the quarter, and you’re making an Office-style look at an imaginary camera, trying to hold your composure and not bursting out that nothing has been implemented.

You’re sitting on a ton of strategies, analyses, and audits for improving the performance of your client, yet you are observing their performance slowly deteriorating as a result of lack of implementation. 

Aleyda Solis presented a great example of how to provide performance reporting using data storytelling using setup, conflict, and resolution framework, highlighting where performance has fallen short, and how to achieve the expected goal. She uses the narrative and storytelling component in order to tell a cohesive story and mark the important points within that conflict in order to help the audience better understand why they are observing the data that they are seeing on the screens.

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An additional tip here is to ensure that this type of performance report is regularly provided to clients, and tied with weekly performance review calls. This should not be a once-in-a-quarter exercise, and should absolutely not be something that the client indicates. As a consultant, you should be proactive about providing insights when goals are out of projected targets, and suggestions on actions to take to improve the outcomes. 

How to adapt your data story to the stakeholders you’re reporting to and promote understanding and change

Consider a situation, where you’re carrying out a performance review with a c-suite and project lead. Here’s a breakdown of their seniority and communication profiles: 

  • Project Lead (Specialist)
    • Intimately involved in day-to-day
    • Needs implementation detail, clarity, and technical requirements
  • C-suite
    • Doesn’t use technical terminology
    • Doesn’t care about position tracking
    • Cares about UX, profitability, and growth 

What often happens in these types of meetings is that one of the two will inevitably feel left out of the discussions if the report is not tailored to them. 

If you go too technical, the c-suite is going to feel like they don’t understand what you’re talking about and are either going to check out of the call, or they’re going to interrupt constantly with a ton of questions, hijacking the call. 

If you go too high-level, the specialist is going to feel like they are not part of the conversation, and will start asking detailed questions about projects, presenting a situation, in which you might look unprepared for the call.

What you need to do in this situation is to adapt the data story to each of them and present projects in a way that helps move the project forward. What would often happen is that you would present the performance in two separate ways for each of the two, in order to ensure that they’re both engaged in the conversation and understand what the ask from each one is. 

In other words, you need to ensure that whatever asks you have for actions that are within the scope of control of the c-suite executive are made with the appropriate context and level of understanding and urgency needed for that stakeholder to action them, as typically they’d have the authority to quickly move things around and unblock projects. 

On the other hand, you must also ensure that you provide a sufficient level of detail for the specialist to feel involved and respected, as at the end of the call – they are going to be the ones, with whom you would continue doing work with on a day-to-day basis.

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How to not overcomplicate things – simple data stories, presented in simple ways can have a huge impact

Last but not least, I wanted to mention that choosing the medium with which you present your data story can make or break it. While we are led to believe that fancy reports, interactive and complex dashboards, or advanced analyses are the hottest thing in the game, you’d be surprised at how effective a color-coded list can be, which shows non-implemented projects and their projected impact on currently unutilized traffic and revenue, alongside their cost to the organization in consulting fees.

Point being, if you know your stakeholders well and if you can utilize the data points you have strategically to influence them into action, you don’t need a complex vessel to put this story in front of them, and get the desired outcome. 

Takeaway – the importance of data storytelling

Data storytelling is a critical skill for every consultant, which can help you: 

  • Promote change – Inform and promote action, urgency, and understanding
  • Level Up – Data storytelling encompasses data science, storytelling, and visualization (but also relationship building and stakeholder management)
  • Create a bigger impact – Data storytelling can improve memorability, persuasiveness, and impact of your data
  • Improve communication – By using all three elements of the storytelling, and three elements of narrative design, your suggested course of action can be better understood