Jun 2016

Building a Better Report: Telling a Visual Story


When creating a report it can be tempting to just present data. It’s hard to argue with data, but it can also be hard to create convincing arguments with only data. When you do, your audience becomes overwhelmed with data, and with no context to attach it to, they forget it and why it is meaningful. This is why creating a good presentation is all about telling a visual story.

In general humans are awful at remembering facts.  In a study from Stanford, a professor decided to test students ability to remember presentations. Students were given statistics on crime patterns in the US and each was asked to make a one minute presentation on their findings. The average student used 2.5 statistics in their argument, and only 1 in 10 told a story.  Afterwards both groups voted for the person in their group they thought was the best, the class is told they’re done, and they watch a video. Everyone puts the presentations out of their mind. After the video, the professor asks them all to write down everything they can remember from the presentations. Few remember more than one or two things, some remember nothing. Only 5% can remember a single statistic… but 63% remember the stories.

Today, I want to delve into how you can start making effective use of visual storytelling to enhance your reports.

Decide if your report is author driven, reader driven or both

An author-driven presentation is one with a single linear path through the data, a strong message, and include very little interactivity. Some examples might be a stage presentation or training.

An author driven presentation has its pacing and narrative directed by the presenter

In contrast, a reader-driven presentation has no order to the presentation of data, and in a purely reader driven approach, very little in the way of message. However, it may be very interactive. Some examples may include treasury analytics, or reports that are provided in interactive form (eg. spreadsheets).

Reader driven presentations, like HowStuffWorks.com's Universal Energy infographic, allows the presentation to be explored by the reader, without strict narrative presentation

Sometimes people will opt for a combination approach. A good example is the Martini Glass approach, where a presentation starts by following a tight narrative path in the beginning, then opens up for more free exploration of the topic by the end.

Think about your audience

One of the most important things you can think about is the needs of your audience. Is this a presentation for decision makers? A report for managers? Any visualization you produce needs to be produced with an understanding of the level of information your audience has.

  • Managers: They will need actionable, in depth understanding of the intricacies of the subject, and will likely want access to detail.
  • Executive: only has time to glean the significance and conclusions of weighted probabilities

Use a story archetype

Is your data an exploration of a troubling event? A contrast of a potential market with your target? A look at a new idea? Believe it or not, these all correspond to common story archetypes, and those can give you a hint at how to structure the data you’ve already produced into something more memorable.

Check out Orson Scott Card’s 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels.

Use characters

People care about people. In a presentation, it can be helpful to refer to the people involved in the presentation you’re discussing. By this I don’t mean that you should tell the story of Jill in Accounting, but you can integrate characters by choices like highlight the role that your teams played in your presentation.

Annotate your visualizations

Annotations provide a context for the data you present, giving further details or interpretation of the information you’re providing. In some contexts this might mean “details-on-demand” - with more information appearing when one interacts with that particular element. Annotations help prevent ambiguity and enhance understanding of a topic.

Keep consistent visual semantics

This is a really wordy way of saying that you should maintain a visual “language” across your presentation. This includes a consistent use of visual highlighting (color, size, boldness), semantically consistent color encoding, and maintaining similar placement of items.

Cut cut cut

Think about your presentation as signal and noise. What is it that you’re really trying to get across? That’s your signal. If something you say doesn’t add to that, it introduces “noise”. Look at each thing in your presentation and ask yourself if it supports what you want to achieve.

Avoid cutting signal though: a good visual presentation should stand on its own, providing enough information to understand what it’s trying to get across without needing someone to explain it.

Creating a better report means building a better visual story

Crucial to creating effective presentations is your ability to create a visual narrative out of your data. This requires a consideration of who you’re presenting to, a narrative approach, taking steps to limit ambiguity, maintaining a visual language, and separating signal from noise. In doing so, you create a presentation that will be remembered.

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