Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: 'Storytelling with Data' by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

It is difficult (if not impossible) to manage what cannot be measured. Yes, there are “intangibles” (e.g. empathy) that have unique value and importance. Quantifying the so-called “soft skills” (e.g. listening) also poses challenges. However, the fact remains that data visualization can enrich and extend a narrative’s impact, especially when the objective is persuasion or resolution rather than entertainment.

What Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic provides in this volume is an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can help almost anyone to master the skills needed, in Knaflic's words, “to visualize data and tell stories with it” in order to turn the data “into information that can be used to drive better decision making.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Knaflic’s coverage:

o Thinking like a designer (Pages 15-16 and 127-150)
o Importance of context (19-33)
o Selecting visuals that will be effective (35-69)
o Graphs (43-49)
o Bar charts (50-59, 156-158, 161-162, and 236-237)
o Visuals to avoid (61-68)
o Voiding clutter (71-98)
o Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception (74-81)
o Lack of visual order (81-86)
o Focusing on an audience’s attention (99-126)
o Preattentive attributes (102-116)
o Affordances (128-138)
o Hierarchy of Information (135-138)
o Accessibility (138-145)
o Storytelling (165-185)
o Storytelling with data process (187-205 and 242-255)
o Case Study 2: Leveraging animation in the visuals you present (210-218)
o Case Study 4: Strategies for avoiding the spaghetti graph (227-234)

I agree with Knaflic: “There is a story in your data. But your tools don’t know what that story is. That’s where it takes you — the analyst or commentator of the information — to bring that stay visually and contextually to life. That process is the focus of this book.”

These are the specific learning objectives on which she focuses, each preceded by “How to….”

o Understand the context in which the story is presented
o Select an appropriate visual display of the data
o Eliminate clutter
o Focus attention where it is most needed
o Think like a designer
o Tell the story (setting. characters, plot, conflicts, resolution, etc.)

Presumably Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic agrees with me that the most effective storytellers are aware of an unspoken question that every member of the given audience has in mind: “Why should I care?” or perhaps “What’s in it for me?” The story format will help to engage their interest but there must also be substantive support of the message. That’s where the data component is decisive, for better or worse. If you need help with creating visualizations “that are thoughtfully designed to impart information and incite action,” look no further.

Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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