Data Visualization as Storytelling: A Stretched Analogy

There is a funny list of awkward analogies by high school students that circles the Internet like a shark around a downed airman. There were some great ones in the list:

  • She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
  • He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.
  • The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

A good analogy is priceless--it helps us understand the new by connecting it to the familiar. A bad analogy is like an empty tin can at the bottom of a well, it isn’t good to drink from.

Good data visualizations are like storytelling. Where does this analogy lie?

For practitioners of the craft, connecting our work to stories feels satisfying -- it is a call to raise our standards and an opportunity to enhance the influence of our field. Stories evoke images of rapt audiences, dramatic arcs, and unexpected plot twists.

Unfortunately this analogy is a stretch. The truth is that many of the core elements of stories simply aren’t evident in data visualizations: characters, a plot, a three-act structure, a beginning and an end. Occasionally, the narrative flow of a story can be glimpsed in an infographic or dashboard.

At the same time, data visualizations have fundamental characteristics missing from traditional storytelling. Interactive data visualizations let the audience explore the information to find the insights that resonate with them. Visualizations should take shape based to a large extend on the underlying data. And as this data changes, the emphasis and message of the visualization is likely to change.

To be fair they aren’t entirely unrelated. One element that the two forms of communication share is the ability to build and resolve tension. Pose a problem, then deliver an insight that helps answer that problem.

Nevertheless, our community breezily equates visualization with storytelling. I was struck by the language used in Visual.ly's recent post called From Data to Story: Dissecting a Well-Made Visualization. The author reviews a good visualization and discusses how it tells a simple story:

"This piece is particularly interesting because it tells a very simple story, yet the data itself is complex. Imagine the myriad ways that one could show the aggregated percent change for twenty different companies. The author of this visualization experimented with different views and arrived on the two that told the story most completely, most effortlessly."

Ad Age’s Garrick Schmitt boldly states that "all of this data visualization is, of course, really just a new way to tell stories (or create experiences).”

We want to link our newest communication method to our oldest. The shoe doesn’t fit.

Ultimately, communicating with data isn’t about telling a specific story, but rather starting a guided conversation. It is more a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the color commentary of a basketball game, or the narrative structure of Call of Duty 3. It is more dialogue with the viewer’s understanding than monologue, and must be more influenced by the content than the unfettered creation of a storyteller.