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Data Storytelling Do’s and Don’ts for Top-Tier Communication

Author: WildApricot
January 12, 2024
🕑 5 min read

Data analysis is essential for any organization looking to drive lasting change. But, it’s just the first step. An organization must effectively communicate these insights to gain traction. They can do this by incorporating data points into a story. 

Data storytelling weaves data points into a compelling context and frames it within broader implications. This form of communication is becoming the norm — 71% of executives prioritize data storytelling skills for reporting to the C-Suite or key stakeholders. 

Honing your data storytelling skills involves aggregating data from many different sources (donor data, surveys, beneficiary data, etc.) to distill key insights. This is essential for board presentations, corporate sponsorship appeals, donation appeals, and many other critical messaging needs.

To help you perfect your data storytelling, this guide will cover the top do’s and don’ts to make your communications more compelling. Let’s begin. 

Do: Know Your Audience

Before diving into your story, consider your audience. This is important for determining how technical your analysis should be and which data points are most applicable. For example, a nonprofit board presentation would include more detailed communication noting key fundraising benchmarks, while a donation appeal might use more real-life stories to drive home impact. 

With this in mind, here are a few pointers for aligning your storytelling to your audience:

  • Speak their language and use examples relevant to them. Use terminology and examples that resonate with your audience. For example, a new supporter may not be familiar with organization-specific acronyms while internal audiences will be. 
  • Anticipate their questions and provide in-depth answers. For presentations especially, make sure to explain any inconsistencies and offer solutions to problems highlighted by your data. For instance, an organization seeing a dip in social media awareness might plan to launch a Facebook challenge to boost engagement.
  • Add real-life stories that resonate with them. Stories and examples provide an emotional element that can make data more tangible. Your team could leverage recent beneficiary stories or volunteer testimonials or quotes to drive your points home.

By tailoring your story to your audience, you’ll be able to both inform them and inspire action. Understanding their interests, priorities, and concerns ahead of time will help you structure your data narrative in a way that resonates with them. 

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Do: Use Visualization Tools

Data visualization tools are essential to help audiences understand key concepts that bring your data collection to life. These can take many forms, so choose a visualization tool that best represents your data. Here are a few to consider:

  • Dashboards. Interactive dashboards can give a comprehensive view of data. For instance, Arcadia’s healthcare dashboards simplify complex healthcare data sets into focused, impactful dashboards. You can use tools like Tableau and Google Data Studio to build your dashboards. 
  • Charts and graphs. Bar charts, line graphs, and pie charts are all helpful tools to make your data points more visually appealing. Use line graphs to display data over time, bar graphs to compare data categories, and pie graphs to indicate proportions. 
  • Infographics. Infographics are flexible tools that can take several forms including process infographics, maps or geographic infographics, statistical distributions (such as bell curves), list infographics, and comparison infographics. 

Choose a visualization tool that aligns with the story you want to tell. Dashboards can provide a birds-eye view of insights while charts and infographics can provide tangible comparisons and explain complex processes. Explore these visualization tools and be open to trying new ones that capture your data and captivate your audience. 

Don’t: Forget to Contextualize Your Data

If you’ve been analyzing your data sets for long periods of time, it can be easy to assume your audience knows what each data point means. Don’t make this mistake!

Contextualize your findings by explaining why each point is included and why it matters. Here are a few pieces of context you can use to frame your story:

  • Trends over time. Use historical data to place your story in context with previous benchmarks to indicate progress or spotlight slowdowns. You can do this for both your own internal trends over time as well as industry trends. 
  • Industry benchmarks or comparisons. Comparative context grounds your narrative and can reveal any gaps in performance. For example, analyze how your organization is performing compared to industry-wide donor satisfaction trends or global impact. 
  • Economic context. Recessions or economic growth can play a significant role in your organization’s data. Discuss how these external forces impact your data where applicable. 
  • Geographic context. Explore how certain location or regional data matters for your data story. For instance, you might compare regional natural disasters to your available resources in that location. 
  • Seasonal variations. Take timing into account when discussing your key findings. For instance, a nonprofit’s donor’s giving capacity will fluctuate in accordance with peak seasons such as Giving Tuesday. 

If your organization’s dataset is particularly difficult to contextualize, consider working with a third party to help analyze your performance. For instance, healthcare organizations often struggle to transform millions of datasets (patient, provider, population, etc.) into actionable insights. Working with an analytics company can help capture and visualize this data.

Don’t: Overload Your Listeners

It’s easy to get carried away when presenting a data-backed story. Consider your audience and your most important points when selecting which data to include to avoid overwhelming them. This applies to both oral presentations and visual reports. Keep your story on track by:  

  • Eliminating unnecessary data points. This is easier said than done, but if there are outdated or irrelevant points that do not directly relate to your main message or provide valuable context, remove them.
  • Limiting visual clutter. Include just one primary visual per page or slide to give viewers time to process the information before moving on to the next defined section. 
  • Keeping visual aids straightforward. Fancy graphs can be appealing, but if they cause viewers to strain their eyes or misunderstand your key points, they should be removed or replaced with simplified versions. In this case, defer to your audience to consider their expectations.
  • Providing additional resources for them to explore. If your organization has conducted extensive research but has limited time or space to highlight related information, provide additional resources for your audience to explore after your initial presentation. 

An optimal way to keep your presentation straightforward is by making sure each data point directly relates to your core message. Take charity: water’s website content for example — its water crisis research places the eye-catching stat “703 million people live without clean water” at the forefront. 

This finding, along with other compelling research, is the driving force behind the organization’s mission. Including relevant statistics makes charity: water’s data story easy to follow. They can then use these stats to inspire greater fundraising results and measure their progress.  

Data storytelling is a skill that every organization needs to communicate effectively. Turn to additional resources like Getting Attention’s list of free marketing tools to help you find powerful analytics tools to showcase your impact. This way, when the time comes to draft your data story, you’ll have all the points you need to make a lasting impression. 

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