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Storyboarding: The Secret Sauce of Data Visualization and Storytelling Success

In today's data-driven world, storytelling has found a new stage, one that might seem unlikely at first glance: the realm of data analytics. If you’re reading this, you may be new to the idea of data storytelling or you’re already familiar with the concept and are eager to dig deeper into the practical side of it. 


Enter the all-important step of data story storyboarding – a technique that helps bridge the gap between data analysis and effective communication when crafting an analytical narrative to share your insights.


The word "storyboard" is clearly legible on a piece of paper, a pair of glasses sits on top.

In this article, we'll look specifically at the role of storyboarding in crafting an effective data narrative.  Data storytelling is an essential tool in modern business communication.


Whether you're a nonprofit leader looking to convey your organization's impact or a healthcare professional aiming to communicate critical insights, this article will provide you with a how-to look at using storyboarding to craft data stories that engage, inform, and drive change. Let's start by laying the groundwork for understanding the role of storyboarding by first exploring the data storytelling essentials.

 

The Six Data Storytelling Essentials

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.  These three essentials, data literacy, data visualization, and data narrative, are at the core of the data storytelling process.


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.  The purpose of data storytelling is to make complex information more understandable to the intended audience.


Also essential to effective data storytelling are three additional factors: data communication planning to refine your understanding of purpose and audience, the data culture in which the story is created and shared, and the physical presentation of the data story.

 

 

Data storytelling can help motivate volunteers, staff, and funders.  It may serve as an input to a larger group decision making process, Data holds a special place in decision making, but the question often lingers: How can we take those numbers and turn them into engaging narratives that truly make a difference?


To answer this question, let’s dive a little deeper first into the data storytelling essential of data narrative.


Data Narrative: A Data Storytelling Essential

Data stories are sometimes also referred to as analytical or visual stories.  Data storytelling takes data visualization to the next level by weaving it into a narrative that takes the viewer on a journey, much as a traditional story might.



Data narrative provides structure and order for the viewer journey. Framework tools such as the ten kinds of stories to tell with data and using the narrative data story arc can help you shape and order the elements.



A data story can be a collection of visualizations, such as an annual report or presentation, or it may even be presented as a single slide, an email or infographic posted on social media. 



Storyboarding How-To for Data Visualization and Storytelling 

Once you know the story you are telling and have identified the data story format that you will be using to share your story, you are ready to begin the storyboarding process.


Storyboarding is a very visual process.  While there are plenty of online platforms to use, I prefer to storyboard a data story using low-tech sticky notes and a flat surface – a wall, a table, or a pad of paper will do!.  I prefer sticky notes because they can be easily moved at a pace that keeps up with my mind better than my typing and mouse clicking abilities can. 


There are four steps to my storyboarding process: outline, sketch, arrange, create.


Storyboard Step #1 | Outline 

At this step you focus on extracting the key data points and defining the core message for the intended audience.  Developing a precise plan early in your data story planning establishes your purpose and audience. Before getting visual, identify and extract the two to five key points.  This set of key ideas will make up the central message of your data story. 

  1. Budgeted funding for volunteer recruitment

  2. Growth rate of volunteers

  3. Sustained growth since 2017

 

Storyboard Step #2 | Sketch

Now, start the visual expression.  Storyboard two to five images. Identify visuals and key words that express the central message.  This is a rough outline, so don’t worry about artistic skill nor finding the right word, just physically provide a visual framework for your data story.


A data story storyboard with just a few images and key phrases sketched out
Data story storyboard with key ideas sketched out.

Create a visual hierarchy of ideas.  The visual layout in the arrangement of the storyboard should reflect the flow and support of ideas. Refer to the type of story you are telling with your data to assist with the order.  In this example, I have a “what story” is being developed into a one slide data story.




Storyboard Step #3 | Arrange

After the initial sketch, organize the data story's flow and address any missing elements. 


data story storyboard with key ideas arranged along a data story arc
Data story storyboard with key ideas arranged along a data story arc.

This is a good time to reference the narrative framework tool of the data story arc.  Take your data story viewer/reader on a journey by adding rising action and a key climatic insight for which resolution is sought.


To transfer this concept to the next step, creating visualizations, you'll use the design principles of data visualization.

 

Storyboard Step #4 | Create

Using your storyboard arrangement as a guide, now use your favorite tools to create several iterations of your story.  I like to use excel and powerpoint as my power combo. 

Be sure to iterate!  Data storytelling is not a one-and-done process.   



Exploring different ways to visualize the data effectively is the final step.  If you are crafting the same data story for a different audience or in a different format, you definitely need to storyboard again with those contextual differences in mind. 


Example of data story created from storyboard.

 

Summary

Storyboarding is a not-to-be missed step in creating an effective narrative.  This article provides an overview of a quick four-step storyboarding method for data visualization and storytelling.  Using simple low-tech sticky notes, organization and visual structure can be developed for use in effectively communicating with data.

 

How do you plan for the creation of your data stories?

 
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Roseanna Galindo, ECBA, CAVS

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 PeriscopeBPA.com for more information.

 

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