Tips and Tools for Telling Stories Using Data

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Back at SIPA 2019 in June, Emily Laermer, managing editor for Ignites at Money-Media, presented an excellent session titled Numbers Drive Engagement: Telling Compelling Stories Using Data. Ignites covers the mutual fund industry. Her previous title at Money-Media was data visualization editor and included work for Board IQ which covers mutual fund directors.

"At Money Media we recognize engagement by how many times stories are forwarded or saved," Laermer began. "Even if a story doesn't get a lot of clicks, if it does get a lot of forwards and saves, then we consider that to be a highly successful and engaged story.

"Data and visual stories are pretty consistently among our most saved and forwarded content," she continued. "In the most basic sense, data stories are ones that just have a ton of information. So they can be generated from a huge spreadsheet or Excel file. But they don't necessarily have to be numbers driven. They can be stories that have a lot of facts. So for example, new rules and regulations are great data stories. The first story I worked on at Ignites required that I read a 400-page rule on mutual fund regulation and how the funds were going to have to change their reporting. That's a data story."

Here are key takeaways from her session:

Visual stories are ones best told through pictures. "Often they're stories that can be written but they would probably be very dense, very boring and probably not very interesting." A lot of historical information might cause someone to go with a more visual treatment.

Timelines can be very effective. In reporting on a company that had been acquiring new companies, Laermer went through annual reports, press releases, etc., and built out a timeline that proved very engaging.

Only use maps if geography is crucial to a story. She pointed to a U.S. map that showed a Department of Labor percentage of workers with access to retirement plans. "You can see just by looking at it that southern states have less access to retirement plans," she said. "It also shows which states have enacted plans."

Visualizations can just be really cool charts. Her example for this showed a list of departing female CIOs at colleges and universities. To the bottom we saw what CIOS left what schools. To the right we saw that most of those schools had replaced those leaving with men.

Keys to building a data culture. Hire people who know that stories are not always best told through narrative. Also make sure the proper tools are acquired. Unsilo—open the conversation up with other relevant departments (graphics, tech, etc.). Make sure that data people are involved as early in the process as possible.

Keys to hiring a data reporter. Check her or his reporter instincts and make sure she or he understands numbers, is extremely detail oriented and a creative thinker. You also want good design sensibilities and knowledge of JavaScript, R and Python.

Last but not least, here are some tools that Laermer recommends:

  • Google Charts has "a ton of different templates." Tree map, bar chart, org chart, timeline. Requires tiny bit of coding.
  • High Charts is good but not free. It's a cloud version. Good bubble charts – continually rolling out new products.   
  • Tableau – Requires more coding. Has an I frame that you can pop in.
  • ThingLink – Create unique experiences with interactive images, videos and 360° media.
  • Infogram – Free version online. An intuitive visualization tool that empowers people and teams to create content.

The following tools are from Knight Lab:

  • Juxtapose - A tool to create easy-to-make frame comparisons.
  • Soundcite – Add audio inline with your text.
  • Storyline – Tell the story behind the numbers.
  • StoryMaps – Creating maps that tell stories.
  • Timeline - Easy-to-make, beautiful timelines.

To listen to Laermer's session, click on the SIPA 2019 Presentations page. If you need password help, please email me.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…