Telling Stories with Data: Do's and Don'ts for Beginners and Experts

May 2018
Fountain Visual Communications

Do's and Don'ts for Beginners and Experts

By: Lydia Hooper, Fountain Visual Communications

Nowadays, we all seem to be swimming in endless data and information. This can present exciting opportunities to better understand our work and the impact we’re making. It also means that if we want to help others understand, we need to be able to share data and information in ways that truly cut through the noise.

Often, we spend so much time collecting and interpreting data that we leave little time and attention to thoughtfully sharing it. But if we don’t ensure that it gets the attention it deserves; how can we expect to inspire the change we desire?

Visuals are key. They help us learn a lot very quickly, are easily shared, and leave lasting impressions. They can also be simple to create if you know what’s most important, and are willing to learn.

Below are some important DO’s and DON’T’S as you create game-changing data visualizations: ;

  • DO be sure the data you are using is complete and reliable! Always list sources, ideally with links so readers can dive deeper if they want.

  • DON’T let your anxieties about design software stop you from creating. There are many free or low-cost, user-friendly tools online with training materials and even service. A few recommendations are Tableau, Kumu, and Venngage.

  • DO take the time to consider your audience. To ensure your visual will be the most appropriate and useful, determine who will benefit from understanding the data, why will they care about it, and any follow-up actions they may need to take. Walk them through the data by identifying potential problems, and the proposed solutions, based on the data shown. For example, if you want to share data to persuade parents to vaccinate their children, keep in mind they are most likely concerned about keeping their children safe, so you may want to show data that demonstrates the safety of immunizations, as well as the potential implications of not.

  • DON’T make it hard for them to have an “aha” moment. Use clear quantities (3 new clinics) and ratios (3 of 10) instead of percents or percentage changes (30%). Help your reader understand why your data is significant by comparing it with data from similar situations, key comparisons, trending timelines, etc. For example, instead of comparing 762 homicides in Chicago with 334 in New York, compare 24 versus 3.8 murders per 100,000 residents. Even better, compare those with 50 per 100,000 in New Orleans.

  • DO use visuals that show key comparisons.

    • If you are comparing locations, use a geographic map.

    • If you are comparing ties within networks, use a network map.

    • If you are showing change over time, use a line graph.

    • If you are showing ratios, use a pictograph.

    • If you are showing other amounts, use a bar graph.

    • If you are showing proportions, use a stacked bar graph.

Be wary of using visuals that make it difficult for the reader to compare, like bubble maps, donut charts, or treemaps.

  • DON’T bog the viewer down with clutter. Don’t use 3D graphs, pie graphs with more than a few slices, or icons that don’t add any meaning. When in doubt, remember that you want the data to be conveyed in what William Playfair (the inventor of the bar, pie, and line graphs) called “one simple impression.”

  • DO use images of familiar objects, if they help your reader connect to the data. For example, you might use bathtubs to describe amounts of water or football fields to describe long distances.

  • DON’T forget to think carefully about color. Dark text on a light background is the most legible. Avoid red/green and yellow/blue color combinations as those will be hard for those who are colorblind to read. Stick with only one or two colors (ideally ones that will contrast with one another if printed in black and white) and use them to emphasize important points, lines or bars in your graph.

  • DO use narrative to clarify your message. Titles should either directly say what the graph means or ask the question that the graph answers. Be sure to label features, axes, etc. very clearly. Annotate significant data points to make your graphs more meaningful. It’s also great practice to couple quantitative data (numbers and graphs) with qualitative data (testimonials or case studies) to make it more personal and relatable. Be sure to use active voice and replace jargon with more common words. Only use acronyms if they are well known (such as CPR or MRI) or will further educate your reader (they may benefit from knowing what TANF is, for instance). Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resources for using plain language.

  • DON’T worry about doing it perfectly. Embrace that creating and sharing meaningful visuals takes practice, just like collecting meaningful data does. Ask others, ideally those you will your share data with, to give you feedback on whether the data is understandable and useful in the way you are presenting it. When you get stuck, reach out for support from colleagues, peers, or online groups. When you’re ready to take your skills to the next level, you can dive into a book like Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Resonate by Nancy Duarte, or The Truthful Art by Alberto Cairo.

  • DO think of data communication as an ongoing conversation. Provide opportunities for your audience to engage further and learn more. Be open to learning from them, especially about what they are struggling to understand, so you can provide better solutions as you continue becoming more skilled in creating game-changing data visualizations.

Lydia Hooper specializes in partnering with organizations and networks of organizations to help them collaborate and communicate about data and complex topics. She offers services and training in data storytelling, graphic recording, and communications strategy. You can read more of her articles at