Telling a story doesn’t tell the whole story

by Enrico on February 28, 2012

in Thoughts

story tellingI was reading the description of a new data visualization contest coming out today, the Nielsen Data Visualization Contest, and an apparently insignificant sentence caught my attention: “The challenge is to make data tell a story, conveying what’s most important effectively and efficiently.

There is a lot of attention lately around using visualization to “tell a story” and I can understand why: visualization, when designed properly, has a tremendous effect on people. Not only it has the power to convey a clear message and to make complex concepts very easy to grasp, but it also has the power to persuade. I guess the main reason being that when a statement is backed up by data then people believe it is true(er).

I have nothing against using visualization to tell stories, to the contrary I am fascinated by this use of visualization and I think it’s very relevant. For instance, raising awareness about important facts or democratizing access to complex information are very noble intents of visual story telling, and I fully support them.

But, I don’t know, call me old-style, conservative, bigot: I am concerned by an excessive focus on story telling. It’s an itch I cannot scratch. And because I cannot express it in a closed form the only thing I can do is to make a list of concerns I have (hoping your comments will make it easier to dispel the fog).

There’s no story telling without data exploration. Creating a story with visualization doesn’t mean there is not role for data exploration in visualization in its making. People looking at the final product might think the power of visualization is exclusively in the effective presentation of the facts. But what people don’t see is the amount of exploratory work behind every story. I know as a matter of fact that many great visualization designers start with a thorough visual exploration of the data at hand using standard tools like Tableau or R. Without this preliminary phase it’s very hard to tell a compelling story and it is also very hard to come up with an enlightening visualization.

It’s the data that makes the story not the visualization. I always laugh a bit when people complain about David McCandless’ work. They say that their visualizations are not optimal and that he makes many “mistakes”. In a way I agree but why does he have such a big success then? I think the reason rests in his ability to select amazing stories to tell. The story is hidden in the data. Well, not even in the data, I guess everything starts in his mind, the rest just follows naturally. So, if we are passionate about visualization and dare about its proper use I believe story telling is (maybe) not the most challenging area to test it.

Many people need visualization to build our future not to tell a story. While I cannot resist a catchy well-crafted data visualization that tells a compelling story, I also know from my experience how desperately professionals of all kinds need visualization to just do their work best. I am talking about doctors, engineers, biologists, policy makers, etc. Part of our life, or of our future generations, might depend on them and we have the opportunity to help them help us. Don’t you think this use of visualization is a bit under represented on the web when compared to the whole set of story telling visualizations out there? For instance, why don’t we have contests to help these people with their data and have plenty of those asking to vaguely find a story to tell in this or that data set?

A story is not THE truth. I have no evidence for that but my feeling is that visualization can be used to more easily persuade people. By the mere fact of being built on top of data people might think it is truer than other kind of stories. Again, you can see that in McCandless’ work. Many of his pieces are evidently conceived to be provocative and touch hot topics. But I bet that for every provocative visualization out there there is the possibility to build a counter argument with another one. I might be proven wrong on that but I haven’t seen any evidence on the contrary so far.

Not all stories are worth telling. Since the power of a story resides in the data, it is not always possible to tell a compelling story. Regardless the beauty or inventiveness of your visualization if the data is dull you might not get a compelling story. And I have experienced it so many times that I am almost inclined to say that this is pretty much the standard for any given data set. You can see it in the recent Information is Beautiful Award: there are many cool and pretty entries, some that I really like from the design point of view, but is there anything really interesting there to see? Do we leave the stage enriched by new knowledge?

That’s all folks. Any ideas, comments, thoughts? There’s no truth carved in stone here and I’d love to hear your opinion. What do you think about visualization as a vehicle to tell stories?

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