Numbers Do Not Equal Narrative: Identifying Themes Within Data

Jul 19, 2017


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Article ImageMarketers are just now learning what many others have known for years: data visualization is the key to dramatic storytelling and resonating with your target audience. Media theorist John Berger said that data visualization is important because people "think in pictures." Leave aside the fact that people are visual learners and that the vast majority of human communication is nonverbal--visualization data takes ideas and presents them to people in a way that their brains are already naturally receptive to.

The problem, however, is that numbers alone are kind of boring--even when they've been visualized. If you take a boring statistic with absolutely no context to speak of and pair it with a relevant picture, you're not necessarily left with something powerful and compelling. You're probably just left with a boring statistic that now has a pretty picture next to it. Do this a few dozen more times and turn it into an Infographic and you suddenly realize why your collateral isn't performing nearly as well as you'd hoped.

Data visualization is a storytelling tool, just like so many others. It is not, nor will it ever be, the story itself. For that, you need to work to identify themes within your data. Don't necessarily start with a theme and cherry-pick the stats that confirm it. Compile your data, take a step back, and look at the story unfolding in front of you.

Once you've given your data a chance to outline that theme for you, you can then begin to rearrange and redesign your Infographic or presentation to make that theme more organic for others. Doing this, however, will absolutely require you to keep a few key things in mind.  

What's In a Theme?

In terms of narrative storytelling, a theme is just a central topic of a particular story. It's everything that isn't "window dressing"--it's the main idea that you're trying to get across or illustrate in the most straightforward way possible. Take Blade Runner, for example. It’s one of the most classic science fiction films of all time, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While you may think that Blade Runner is about a dour Harrison Ford as a futuristic detective hunting down and "retiring" rogue androids, this is really just the surface level plot.

The story beneath that plot, the major narrative theme, is about a man coming to the realization that you don't have to literally be human to be human. "More human than human" is a phrase heard all throughout the film that reinforces this theme.  

Data Visualization and Theme: A Match Made in Heaven

In terms of your marketing prowess and data visualization, you need to start treating your materials in the exact same way. It's a large part of why visualization alone isn't enough to get the job done. Even though a piece of collateral like an Infographic will rely heavily on statistics, this is very rarely the only element at play. You still usually have an introductory paragraph or two, setting the stage for your main idea and singling out the narrative theme.

You also usually have a few accompanying paragraphs of text throughout that provide additional insight into the numbers being visualized. These don't just help your reader keep the story straight--they also help identify how each number plays back into the larger theme you called out up front. So an Infographic that is ostensibly filled with data about your organization's charitable contributions won't just be statistics about how much money you spent or where that money is going. It would also underline why these donations were important, what you were trying to do, what you helped accomplish and how you positively impacted people's lives.

Once you've identified your theme, every statistic needs to be related to it in some direct way. If you're having a hard time writing up a line or two about why a particular stat needs to be a part of the Infographic you've just created it probably shouldn't be included in the first place.

Keep in mind that sometimes the theme that you think you're trying to convey isn't necessarily the story that demands to be told. That's the great thing about numbers-- they don't lie. To a certain extent, you need to be willing to let the numbers take you where they want to go, not force your numbers to tell any particular story.  

Strengthening Your Connection Through Data Visualization

Behind every set of number is a story just waiting to be told. A story that will resonate with your target audience, that it will find insightful and compelling. That motivates them to take action and that lets them attach a little piece of themselves to who you are and what you're trying to do.

The most essential thing for you to understand is that the numbers themselves are NOT the story. When you visualize data, you're not necessarily taking a set of statistics and just turning them into images. That's not what a terrific Infographic actually does. The relationship between the numbers in front of you and the progress you've made, the challenges you've overcome and the goals you've accomplished--that is what you're trying to visualize. Those numbers feed into the images and, when taken together, form something much more powerful than any one individual part.

Or at least, that's the way it should be. If you're ONLY visualizing data, you're doing something wrong. Only by working to identify the themes within the data will you begin to see the results that you're after.


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