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Narrative Design: The Data Story Arc

Data is powerful but facts alone don't drive action. Data storytelling is a unique combination of art and science, residing at the intersection of data, visuals, and narrative.

Data storytelling builds a narrative around a set of data insights and desired action. It takes both creativity and critical thinking to develop meaningful visual stories with your data.

In this article we'll focus on the art of narrative design specifically as it relates to telling the data story. We'll start by taking a look at the key aspects of stories in general. Then, the discussion moves towards the elements of narrative design found in the traditional story arc.

The data story arc depicted below is an adaptation of a traditional story arc. For relevant application, a healthcare leadership scenario video at the end wraps it all up with the telling of a volunteer impact story.

A classic narrative story arc is adapted for business data communication terminology
Data Story Arc adaptation


Data storytelling involves putting together visualizations in a compelling way so your audience can understand the key takeaways on their own. You know you have a great story when your audience can make decisions and act.

For your story to be most effective, you need to start with a clear purpose, identify the audience, and use the data to share genuine discoveries.


Every effective data story starts with knowing who your audience is and what your purpose is in communicating with them. What is it you want to compel your audience to do with your message? You must first be clear on the purpose you hope to achieve in crafting your story. Do you want the viewer to provide support?... be inspired?... furnish resources?


For communication to be most effective it should be crafted with the audience in mind. For your specific business question there may be a number of stakeholders involved. Each stakeholder has different needs. Their unique role, authority, investment, and involvement in your identified purpose should guide the overall design of your data story from the level of granularity to the mode of delivery.

Knowing why you are speaking and who you are speaking to will help you design the most effective communication. Engaging in stakeholder analysis and audience analysis practices prior to the creation of a data story is central to the ability to connect with them.

Typewriter keyboard with the letters S-T-O-R-Y in focus


What really turns a visualization or set of visualizations into a story is the element of narrative. Stories have order and framework. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Stories tell your audience about cause and effect or a connected series or events in a meaningful way that is supported with data but shaped for their engagement.

A traditional narrative story arc with elements identified
A Traditional Story Arc

A good story grabs your attention and takes you on a journey that evokes emotion. Stories do all this through the narrative structure that sets up conflict and then provides resolution.

The elements of the classic story arc are present in data storytelling. There are different types of business stories to share using data to communicate. Whether your story is about the current state, future state, last quarter, or a Eureka discovery, use a narrative framework to develop your data story.


While the elements take on a slightly different feel in a data story, they have business story equivalents. Each element has a purpose in the story development from beginning to end.




numeral 1

Exposition or Stasis


Introduce the plot, the characters, and current state

Numeral 2


Business Challenge

Create tension. Identify the problem to solve.

Numeral 3

Rising Action

Key Data

Develop the story with supporting information.

Numeral 4



Illuminate the key insight. Reveal the big takeaway.

Numeral 5

Falling Action


Guide audience to connection with business challenge.

Numeral 6


Call to Action

Leave your audience knowing the desired action to take.


Here is an example of a data story with the narrative elements identified. This is a scenario example from the patient experience space in healthcare leadership. The data story slide below illustrates how the narrative elements are applied. Elements are identified and keyed to the above table for reference.

Scroll down to watch a short video to see this scenario's development from business question to visual to the data story slide below.

Data story example with illustrated points to reference


A good data story starts with a business question and leads to data, analysis, and ultimately visualizations and the narrative. View an example of how it all comes together.

Watch the video below to see the development of the data story slide used in this post. The scenario, taken from healthcare volunteer leadership, illustrates the data storytelling process from business question to visual to data story.

Data storytelling blends art and science. Data, visuals, and the elements of narrative design are woven together to create compelling business communications. Using narrative elements in a meaningful way inspires action and drives change. Apply the elements of the data story arc to your storytelling. To see how it all comes together in one experience-related program in healthcare, a short video on the development of a data story wraps it all up.

profile photo of blog author

Roseanna Galindo is Principal at Periscope Business Process Analysis and a champion for data literacy, the human experience in healthcare, and leaders of volunteers everywhere.

Learn more about Roseanna and her blog, The Periscope Insighter, by reading the opening post, Venn The Time Is Right

Roseanna is available for training, keynotes, and executive coaching.

Visit for more information or click on the button below to schedule a time to talk

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