Data imparts legitimacy to PR and marketing messages. Stories with relevant data help people remember, add credibility, improve chances for media placements, and reveal insights into trends and correlations or counter-intuitive surprises that illuminate fresh perspectives.
Yet it’s essential to apply the right combination of data and storytelling.
“Storytelling without data is fluff. Data without storytelling is forgettable. Data with storytelling is epic,” says Paul Petrone, editor in chief of the LinkedIn Learning blog.
Stress key points. Data can overwhelm readers, but the data itself is seldom the story. Good writers know how to unveil and explain the implications of data, says Damian Radcliffe, a professor in journalism at the University of Oregon. Illustrating key points with data helps bring a story alive. Decide what to emphasize and what to include. You don’t have to include every statistic.
Some data-based writers recommend focusing on one or two key statistics and one key chart or graph.
Visualize data. Charts, graphs and other types of data visualizations present numbers in ways that viewers can quickly comprehend. The value of each type of data visualization varies depending on the story and the information you want to explain. Line charts, area charts and bar charts are best for showing trends over time. Bar charts are ideal for comparison and ranking. Data visualizations don’t have to be extremely sophisticated or beautiful. Simply designed graphics are often the most effective.
Presenting data. Consider creating a house stylesheet on how to present information, Radcliffe suggests. Content creators can weave statistics into stories, show them in bar graphs, or present them in tables or more advanced graphs. When covering the Golden State Warriors, the San Jose Mercury News tended to weave stats into stories. SB Nation preferred bar graphs, and FiveThirtyEight favored tables and complicated graphs.
Research or Write First? The most common mistake of marketers who craft data-driven stories is to first seek information that supports their current positions, Petrone says. They write the story before collecting information. Instead, gather the data first and honestly examine what the data reveals. That strategy leads to authentic stories rather than preaching your value proposition.
Identify data sources. Like journalists, corporate communications and marketing can tap public databases. Data that targets a specific industry or geographic region, such as economic indicators, provide a local slant or a viewpoint on a niche business sector. Unlike journalists, corporate PR and marketing are not limited to public databases. Many organizations have internal data that can be transformed into data-based stories. Also, social media analytics can provide a wealth of data and insights on almost any industry.
Use the best tools. Marketing automation, customer relationship management, competitive intelligence and social media analytics tools are instrumental in collecting and analyzing data. Such tools can organize the vast amount of data and present it in a way that’s understandable.
Consider your audience. Take into account the data literacy and preferences of your audience. Don’t make audiences struggle to understand what’s being shown. For complex visualizations, that may mean including captions that interpret the data.
Act like a first-class reporter. Writing like a high-quality data journalist can improve the legitimacy of the story. Link to the original research instead of a blog post that later regurgitated the report. Reveal your sources and avoid unattributed assertions. Most importantly, check your facts. Data-based articles often receive extra scrutiny, and a single error can draw criticism and undermine the entire piece.
Make it human. Connecting the data to people that the audience relates to or issues they experience helps people remember the story. The ideal is that the data convinces people to change their behavior or viewpoint.
Bottom Line: When done well, data-driven storytelling provides a fascinating and convincing mix of data and storytelling. The key is to properly balance information with the story. Too many numbers overwhelm and bore viewers.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.