How to Tell a Story with Data and Analytics in Tableau

After all your effort in learning how to analyze data and present it effectively in charts and dashboards, we are going to evolve our thinking even further by learning how to tell a story with data and analytics. Chip and Dan Heath in their classic book Made to Stick, said: “Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.”24 

Benefits of Storytelling Data

Presenting dashboards by themselves can be great, but people are so overwhelmed with everything going on in their day and a myriad of data and facts being thrown around that they may gloss over your findings despite the amount of time you have put into making readable and insightful charts. You can drive home insights faster and better by tying your charts to a personal experience, a hypothetical data story, or something going on in the company. In fact, some of the best public speakers almost exclusively use stories to illustrate their points. 

Telling a story with data and analytics25 can also bring your users through your thought process so that they arrive at the same conclusion that you did. I created a checklist that you can use before presenting your dashboards along with your prepared data story or example to ensure that your point is driven home: 

How to Tell Stories with Data

Story points are an oft-used feature of Tableau, specifically by Data analysts, as they help make this process very easy. Story points are essentially several dashboards contained within a single dashboard that are partitioned by clickable tabs. Much like in your favorite web browser, you can click these tabs within the dashboard to switch to a different view. Sometimes they are used as just an easy way to contain multiple dashboards within one dashboard especially for web viewing, but truly advanced users use Story points to tell a story with data and analytics, dashboard-by-dashboard, by using the tabs as titles to guide users through their thinking and findings.  

Data Storytelling Example

Examine this example found on the web by Tableau Zen Master Matt Francis.26 Notice the tabs at the top lead you through his thinking and final conclusion that the increasing number of sunspots is influencing global temperature extremes. This is way more impactful than simply showing a chart of increasing global temperatures. 

Data Storytelling

How to Create Data Stories in Tableau

We are not going to create a full data story here in this example, but we will show you the steps on how to create data stories. 

  1. Click “New Story.” It is the third button on the bottom right-hand corner where New Sheet and New Dashboard are located. 
Story Telling with Data
  1. You will see something like this: 
Data Storytelling Examples
  1. Find the “Other Findings” Dashboard and bring it out into the view by dragging and dropping it like we did with bringing charts out to dashboards. 
  1. You may find that dashboard has scroll bars and it doesn’t look very good: 
Data Story
  1. On the bottom left-hand corner of your screen you will see a menu to change the sizing. Select this and change it from a fixed size to automatic as shown: 
Data Analysis Storytelling
  1. Now, let’s edit the tab name by clicking on the “Add a Caption” gray box at the top. Change this to something like “Mortalities on the rise….” 
What is Data Story
  1. In the top-left corner of your screen click “Blank.” This adds a new Story point or tab to our data story. 
  1. Drag in the “Visit Summary” dashboard. Now we have two dashboards in the data story. 
  1. Name this one something like “…Hypertension is the primary condition.” 
  1.  You will notice that our captions are not quite big enough to cover the entire boxes. You can select the bottom or side line and resize it down to fit your text. 
Story Telling with Data Visualization
  1. You edit the title of the data story the same way you would a chart or dashboard by double-clicking on it. 
  1. That’s it! You can also put charts on or float text. The way I structured the dashboards (being long like a page) does not work super well for stories because it requires the user to scroll. This section is merely for demonstration. That would be something you would need to have an end goal in mind for and design your charts or dashboards for accordingly. 

If you were to use some of the dashboards or charts, we have created in our blog as a data story, how would you structure it? What would your data story be? There are several that you could follow in our blog from mortalities, conditions, readmissions, patient types or groups, etc.  

It’s up to you as the analyst and consultant to tell the most impactful story with data and analytics, or the one that will have the biggest impact to the key financial and operational metrics of the business, even if there are multiple possible stories or angles you could pursue. Since Hypertension is such a large impact, we could create an entire data story on Hypertension showing how its admissions and mortalities have been increasing in the last few years, show who is most likely to get hypertension, how often it is readmitted, and provide a “So What?” or next step to treat our patients with hypertension better. That might include physician training, pamphlets, drip emails, and regional seminars. Finally, I would conclude with an image that ties it all together to drive an emotional impact home, which is such an important, and even radically different concept, that the entire next section has been devoted to teaching you this ninja level presentation skill. 

Add Concrete Metaphors or Comparisons to Give Data Emotional Impact 

Although a chart is almost always better than a table of numbers for displaying context, an image or metaphor is even better than a chart. When you have a key insight that you need your audience to understand, remember, and take action on, try to create a visual metaphor that makes an emotional impact. This may mean minimizing the data in favor of one key image the evokes a visceral, “punch in the gut” type of impact. This is not easy, but it will make your project infinitely more successful. 

Data Storytelling Examples

Consider this example: A health coach or weight loss advisor encourages you to reduce the amount of junk food you eat, starting with popcorn. They tell you that movie theater popcorn has 32 grams of saturated fat on average, which is bad for you, and one box is 3 days’ worth of your saturated fat limit. 

This puts you (i.e. the audience) into an analytical mindset, which lives in the realm of “Oh, that’s interesting to know” but takes you out of the realm of actually taking action, which is driven by emotion. 

Instead, what if the health coach showed you the following picture.  

Data Story Telling

One medium bag of popcorn is worth almost the entire menu at Denny’s restaurant in one sitting! 

Doesn’t just looking at that image make you feel fatter?  And doesn’t that image inspire you to take action much more than the coach telling you it’s got 32 grams of saturated fat? 

Consider another example: a comparison of how large your stomach gets as it digests food.  

Telling Stories with Data

As a visual example, how apparent is the data story between the two images27?  In both cases, we’re using a “chart”, but one tells the data story much more effectively and creates a stronger emotional reaction. The image on the right is very clear. Because we already know the size of watermelons and cantaloupes and know that it is a huge sizing jump between the two, we’ve been able to make a very quick mental jump from something abstract, like the size of your stomach when full, to something concrete that we already understand and have a frame of reference for. 

The goal of making messages “emotional” is to make people care. For people to take action, they have to care. Feelings inspire people to act. Look at the following progression of charts to tell a story with data and analytics. 

Telling a Story with Data

This one is just a basic pie chart (or a donut chart with the center text). It’s simply the facts. How does this chart make you feel?  Likely nothing. In fact, do you even read it, or just gloss over it? 

The following is an excellent chart. It is simple, easy to understand, calls out key insights… yet is still just something we nod our heads to, without evoking any emotion. Without emotion, there is no action. 

Storytelling Data

Contrast the data and message in the above infographic, with the data and message in the following “charts.”  This conveys a more visceral, emotional response. The same message is conveyed, but the data doesn’t distract from the message. The data could be supporting documentation in a separate slide. 

Story by Data
Data Driven Storytelling

 

Now, contrast these two cigarette charts above, with the most impactful images of all, below. 

Data Tells a Story

Here we see a finger that is rotted off and burned to a stub with cigarette ash in the middle. Doesn’t this gross you out and make you want to quit smoking, much more than the initial infographic with data and charts did? 

And finally, the hardest hitting image31

Data Story Examples

A dead parent and a dead baby. Doesn’t that make you sick to your stomach?  Not only does smoking kill you; it makes you murder your children. I, as a parent, can hardly bear to look at an image like this. No data is needed to make this point. Use your analytical chops to find the story in the data, then present that data in a clear and meaningful way. And lastly, find a visual metaphor to summarize everything. Your clients will not remember multiple slides of charts, no matter how nicely formatted. But they will remember an image like this. If you want to drive real action and real change, evoke an emotion in your presentations. Use metaphors, just like Stephen Covey did with the soccer team analogy, just like this image does with smoking. Make it hit them in a way that it sticks with them, that they can’t not think about it, that they can’t avoid taking action on it. Again, it’s not easy, but the emotional impact and reaction you will achieve will drive action you seek to inspire. This will make your project more successful and you more of a hero.  

Data Storytelling Training

Now, that we’ve explored that concept, here are two possible examples based on our healthcare data set we’ve been working with this whole time. 

Telling Stories through Data

In both cases, these were images found on the internet that were mashed together with other images and text was added. I, the author of this article, am no graphic designer and PowerPoint is my graphic design tool of choice. I know that makes all the real graphic designers out there cringe, but I share this to say that anyone can do this.  

For the first image, I did some searches for hypertension, which we found to be a top problem in our data set. I looked up several variations of that, like heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, kidney failure, etc. I found the “eat less salt” image and then inserted a PowerPoint shape to look like a tombstone and added the image as the background, then superimposed my new tombstone image on top of the other photo. Then, I added text with some findings from our analysis. The second image of the woman was good as it was and I just added some text. I used the same font that we’ve used throughout our Tableau workbook and merely adjusted the size of the font for messages I wanted to stand more. 

With some quick Google searching and some creativity in blending images and text together in PowerPoint, I was able to create something that is much more memorable and relatable than just a chart. Now, the point here is not to replace analysis or eliminate charts. We’ve obviously spent a lot of time to write about charts!  But, images like these can be included as bookends to your analysis, helping set the stage and grab interest, as well as leave your clients with an impactful message and image that sticks in their mind at the end of your presentation. 

Conclusion

Congratulations! You are one step ahead in achieving your Tableau mastery goals. With your new skill in how to tell stories with data and analytics, you can create better visuals that are not only insightful, but also impactful. Our goal is to get you better in Tableau and analytics day by day. If you think this course helped you greatly, consider our online Tableau courses for further polishing of your skills. We also offer corporate packages that are focused on an immediate application of learnings to the company.