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Replay: How to find a story in data
Tips for data storytellers who struggle to find stories in data
I wrote an earlier version of this post for BI This Week (now Upside), a TDWI publication, where it was published on December 15, 2015. The post is still as valid as ever.
A data analyst raised her hand in a class I taught on data storytelling and asked the question I hadn't even thought about since journalism school: How do you "see" a story in a jumble of facts?
It's a novel problem for data analysts, but it's an old one for journalists. In fact, as confusing as the task seems to analysts, the confusion is a mystery to journalists. Don't analysts know a story when they see one?
Now in the grand new confluence, journalists use data and analysts tell stories — and each side shudders at the other's ham-handed work. Yet, as other once-irreconcilable factions have done and others may do yet, we all might as well get used to it and learn from each other.
What advice do journalists give analysts about seeing a story? I thought I'd find an easy answer with Google, and searches came up with page upon page of advice — just about all of which stayed on the data analysis side of the chasm. Not one looked across to journalism.
The short answer is this: Take off your analyst's hat and put on your journalist's hat.
Here are a few ways to do that.
Focus on the audience. Stop thinking about the data and think of what the audience wants to know about what it means, what's new, or what's different.
Think of what story you would tell a member of the audience over coffee. Forget your grand entrance, forget the brass band, forget about your boss staring at you. Just tell the story simply and plainly between sips of coffee. What aspects would you emphasize and what would you leave out? How would you structure it? You might find your story's germ there.
Ask yourself: Is anything significant in your data? Events become newsworthy with timeliness, proximity, novelty, or impact. The reporter covering a house fire, for example, may ponder various angles: a house that burned down within the news medium's territory is more significant than a house outside of it. Yesterday's fire is more significant than last year's fire. The mayor's house is more significant than those of most former mayors. On the other hand, George Washington having slept in the house even one night trumps everything.
Look for anomalies. Everyone's heard of "man bites dog," the anomaly that every beginning journalism student learns. It explains what becomes news. "When everything goes as you expect — the sun comes up, spring follows winter, the airplane works flawlessly — there's no story," writes Stephen Denning in The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2011; Jossey-Bass). "Paying attention to apparent anomalies is one of the reasons that we have survived as a species."
Remember that the data is not necessarily the story. This is the most common discovery I've heard from data analysts. Max Galka, a cofounder of Revaluate, an apartment-rating service for renters in Manhattan, found that his customers wanted simple data. "You have to focus on the high level," Max said. At first, he displayed data the way he likes it: lots of it. "I wouldn't put much credence in a building's overall score [if] there wasn't any detail behind it," he said. He offered deep, rich data on scores of apartments. He was disappointed to find that consumers prefer simplicity.
He tried to lure people with rich data. He thought they’d like to log into the site to get elaborate tables and hierarchies. Few did.
Deciding what data to show, lose, or summarize has to be guided by audience and medium. What does the audience really want to know? What does it know already? What incomplete stories can you support or question?
Finally, perhaps most important, what stories will your audience retell? For example, Galka’s story about one user who checked out 10 apartments a week without even once logging in will be retold. It was just one person, and as such it’s statistically insignificant. But it gets attention.
Galka has since swallowed a little bit of his pride and sometimes now takes off his hard-won data analyst's hat — and feels new pride when he puts on his new journalist's hat. If you want to win over an audience, that’s a hat trick you should try.