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It’s all too easy to sacrifice truth in pursuit of attention. Exhibit A: “Fact checking” and “fake news” are so prevalent today that the AP has added them to their stylebook.

But it’s our job in the communications industry to tell stories that are both eye-catching and honest. And it turns out that one of the handiest ways of giving your story credence — citing data — can also be extremely effective at catching eyes and holding interest.

So what does it take to create a successful, data-driven story?

  1. Great data

Before you can outline the story, you need to have solid data. Lots of it, ideally. The goal is not to overwhelm the reader with numbers, metrics or algorithms, but rather to ensure that the premise of the story is well supported and can be tailored for multiple audiences — especially if the client has multiple objectives (i.e., increase brand awareness and drive sales).

Of course, to make effective use of a huge data set, you have to know your stuff. So it’s a good idea to have subject matter experts, such as economists or analysts, involved in the story-crafting process from the beginning. They can help translate niche figures into easily understandable ideas. They can also help find the right story within the data — one that no one has told before or that offers a new perspective on something important to their particular field or industry.

For a recent project with the transportation analytics company INRIX, we had a massive library of global traffic data, gathered across 2016 from 5 million miles of roads in more than 1,000 cities in nearly 40 countries.  With such a high volume of data (500TB analyzed daily), we could actually tell multiple stories, including one that was more media-friendly and one that was geared toward potential public- and private-sector customers. Helping us bring the right stories to the surface — and make sure we were accurate at every turn — were two INRIX economists. It was a deep collaboration that brought out the best in the information.

  1. Visual narrative

While we live in a tech-centric world here in Seattle, plenty of readers would never call themselves “numbers people.” Even for those that would, strong visual content is critical in order to trigger engagement and sharing.

In a prose-heavy report or white paper, visual assets break up the content and give the reader handy snapshots of what you’re communicating. A well-designed visual can also turn a mass of data into something readers can digest almost at a glance. Instead of parsing every individual point, the reader can intuit the relevant patterns and takeaways because of how the data is presented.

In the case of INRIX, we managed to bring together millions of data points from the top 100 cites into a single large-scale visualization. People could easily see how their city fits into the bigger picture of traffic around the world. While packing all that info into one graphic is a triumph in itself, we also drove impressive awareness — one executive received more than 1,000 likes on LinkedIn when he shared the image.

  1. Relevance

A common challenge with data-driven storytelling is working with niche info that doesn’t automatically resonate far and wide. A beautiful and intuitive design may make it understandable, but you need something more to make it matter.

Your best strategy in that case is to tie the information to a larger issue like a current event or situation people regularly encounter. With INRIX, there wasn’t a hot news item to attach to. So we focused on the aspects of traffic that mean the most to people: the time and money they spend sitting in it.

Data-driven storytelling is great because it’s factual and, in the best cases, cool and even fun to explore. But make sure you’re solid on the story part. If a story fails to address the “why should I care” of your audience, it’s not going to hit home.

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With the rise of big data and the legitimacy (both real and perceived) that accompanies the use of statistics and numbers, it’s critical that data stand tall both scientifically and artistically.

It’s not enough to just put information out there. Audiences need to understand why it’s worth learning and retaining. The content should encourage the audience to consider the personal impact of the information. Ultimately, strong data-driven storytelling is as much about accessibility and personal investment as it is about the numbers.

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