A Short Reflection on Storytelling in Data Visualization

By: Jeff Clark    Date: Mon, 28 Apr 2014

The role of storytelling in Data Visualization has become much discussed over the last year or so. One reason I find this aspect of Data Visualization so interesting is that my own natural tendencies are to focus on exploratory visualization. Much of my own past data visualization work is weak in the storytelling side of things. Coming from a scientific background and personally enjoying the act of discovering patterns in data means my default approach is to build exploratory tools. For me, personally, this whole storytelling aspect seems a rich area to mine in order to improve my work.

I just finished listening to the latest Data Stories podcast called Visual Storytelling which is a discussion of the topic by hosts Moritz Stefaner, Enrico Bertini, and their guests Alberto Cairo and Robert Kosara. It's an excellent conversation from a number of perspectives on the subject and I found it very stimulating. If you haven't already heard it then make sure you have a listen.

I was surprised that one aspect of the topic wasn't discussed in the podcast: storytelling techniques in data visualization can be abused to express falsehoods. One thing that is of critical importance to me in data visualization work is that it is grounded in reality - it's based on data which are, hopefully, objectively true or based on some real measurements. To be sure, there is often uncertainty involved and for some topics objectivity is difficult but still, data visualization should be about describing reality as best we can.

Like many people with an engineering, mathematical, or scientific background, I'm suspicious of salesmanship and marketing. I'm wary of other people using emotion and a good story to persuade me to believe something that isn't true. I have some concern that data visualization work that emphasizes storytelling is more likely to be 'Data Fiction' - or propaganda. The designer, through careful choice of selected facts, use of emotion, drama, conflict, and all the other techniques of storytelling can craft a message at odds with reality. The use of 'data' will even lend an air of authority to that message.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for leading a person efficiently to the main points uncovered in a dataset and can dramatically increase the impact of a work. It's very important that the story emerges from quality data and that this connection is open to inspection. Let's make sure that all our data stories are true.


Markham Winter of 2014