PR measurement has come a long way from counting clips. With sophisticated software, better data collection processes, algorithms that can make quick work of mountains of numbers and more PR practitioners versed in using tools like pivot tables in Excel, it’s easier than it has ever been to gather information.
While there are some people that you can hand a stack of charts to and have that be it, most audiences are going to need more. They need context, analysis, and explanations to wrap around those numbers and charts.
This is particularly true if your communications intention is to persuade people—you’ll be using data to support an argument, point, or objective with a specific outcome in mind. Storytelling allows you to use data to illustrate your points, in some cases quite literally.
What is your objective?
If you’re thinking of using data in storytelling, you probably have an objective in mind, whether it’s to explain or persuade. Think about your objective, and write down what it is that you want a reader to learn, take away, or understand from your storytelling.
The more complex your objective is, the more detailed your narrative will likely have to be. Think of your storytelling as a path that leads to an understanding of the objective, and your data is the map that acts as the guide along that path.
Here are some examples of objectives:
- I want readers to understand why we are spending money on a capital project.
- I want readers to support our cause and either sign up or donate money.
- I want readers to understand why, despite investments made, we were unable to achieve a certain outcome.
- I want readers to appreciate all of the intricate parts that contribute to a specific program so that when we need support later, our communications efforts can build on an already established foundation of understanding.
- I want to motivate readers to take action, such as purchasing a product or service from our company.
The data points you use to support the objective should follow a natural progression, leading from one level of understanding to the next.
Examine the available data closely
You’ll get stuck pretty quickly if you don’t have the right data points to support your objective. Make a list of all of the data you already have, and see if there is anything important missing. This gives you the opportunity to either find the additional information you need—if that’s an option—or, it shows you where you might need to fill in gaps another way.
Don’t forget to include media coverage as a rich data source—you can extract a lot of information from past news archives. Changes in volume and sentiment, topic coverage, and competitor mentions should not be overlooked when determining data scope.
If you treat your data as a map leading to the objective, you might want to start your narrative with the data point that is easiest for your target audience to grasp. This can either serve as a foundational concept or as a hook to keep them reading. Either way, if your first data point is readily understood by your audience, your next step is to move them along with the narrative to the next data point.
There should be a logical transition from one data point to the next. An outline can help to keep you on track.
Are you explaining your data, or using your data to explain your efforts?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, but knowing what you are pursuing is important to writing a successful piece.
If you are explaining your data, you’ll need to break the data collection process down and describe why the information is important. An example of using storytelling to explain data is post-election analysis. After an election, journalists and pundits have mountains of information available: turnout numbers, voter demographics including age, gender, location, and frequent political affiliation, and of course they have the election results. What they then try to do is create an understanding of human behavior based on the data available, usually by using charts and storytelling.
Available data used in storytelling can even include earlier media coverage, providing a supporting narrative demonstrating a progression of the campaign or issues, or as data points that show how changes in sentiment and issue prominence might have impacted the end result.
If you are using data to explain your efforts, you’ll use the available data to illustrate the progression of the PR program or plan. A common example of using data to illustrate the progression of a plan are corporate annual reports. In this case, the relevant data and information are selected to show how—or if—business goals are being met.
While these examples sound similar, the objectives are different. In the first, the goal is to understand the data. In the second, the goal is to use data to understand the success or failure of a program. Storytelling makes both examples accessible to targeted audiences by providing context to the data in an easy-to-understand narrative.
Use Charts Wisely
Incorporating visuals into your data storytelling can be incredibly powerful. Charts provide an “at a glance” way of delivering information.
It’s important to choose the right charts to illustrate data. Lines, bars, and columns are good for showing growth or decline over time. Pie charts are good for showing parts of a whole, such as share of voice. Treemaps also show parts of a whole, but prioritize the data, giving the largest segment the biggest “block” showing a ranking. Pyramids also depict hierarchical data, but emphasize a progression, or ranking, from bottom to top.
Again, knowing what your objective is and the type of data available to you will help to determine which charts tell your story the best.
If you are fortunate enough to have a design team to help out with your data visualization, animation can be incredibly useful to illustrate things like before and after, or “what if” scenarios.
Newsrooms have been effectively deploying this type of animation in pieces about climate change. From showing wildfire risks to flooding potential, the use of interactive features can be impactful and persuasive.
It’s one thing to read about risk, it’s another thing entirely to punch in your address or zip code and see what the risk of a flood or wildfire is on your street. That’s the power of animated data.
Understanding Narrative Arcs
In storytelling, a narrative arc is how a writer advances a plotline, usually chronologically. Typically, a narrative arc will follow a pattern of establishing the setting, introducing conflict or action, climax, and then arriving at a resolution.
Even though you aren’t writing a novel, it can be very helpful to understand story structures when you are explaining data. In addition to keeping a piece interesting, when you use a narrative arc, you are creating a path for the reader to follow.
Narrative arcs can help you to tell a compelling story. Think of the impact of building a narrative arc with tension, “if we don’t act now, this is what could happen,” and then using animated data to show the result. Pairing a narrative that establishes a conflict or problem with animation of data that shows the results of a “what if” scenario can be very persuasive.
Creating a narrative using data does take time, and there’s a lot to consider, from what types of information to include, to when and how to use data to support objectives. However, it’s well worth the time invested if you can tell a captivating story with the data because a strong story will stay with people far longer than a list of facts and figures ever could.