Book Review: Storytelling with Data, by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals (2015) by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic is the current #1 Bestseller in Information Management on Amazon for good reason. The book is a clear guide to chart design, helping readers move quickly from basic graphs to engaging and informative displays. Knaflic’s software-agnostic book will benefit all readers.

Her intended audience is “everyone who needs to communicate something to someone using data.” In explaining her motivation, she says…

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 communicator of the information – to bring that story visually and contextually to life. That process is the focus of this book.

The book takes the reader through six steps for creating a compelling story using data.

  1. Understand the context
  2. Choose an appropriate visual display
  3. Eliminate clutter
  4. Focus attention where you want it
  5. Think like a designer
  6. Tell a story

Understand the context. Knaflic notes the counterintuitive nature of establishing context … it doesn’t involve data visualization! Rather, the intent is understanding the environment of the design. This requires knowing the audience (who); the definition of your goal and the mode of communication (what); and your plan using the data to support your design (how). She introduces the idea of a 3-minute story “to boil down the “so-what” down to a paragraph and the Big Idea which further narrows this down to one sentence. These clarify the goals of the project and focus the design process.

Choosing an appropriate visual display. Choosing an appropriate display involves selecting an appropriate graphic to display the data. Knaflic describes and illustrates a basic set of graphics that cover most situations. These include:

  • Simple Text
  • Vertical Bar
  • Scatterplot
  • Horizontal Bar
  • Table
  • Stacked Vertical Bar
  • Line
  • Stacked Horizontal Bar
  • Heatmap
  • Waterfall
  • Slopegraph
  • Square Area

She also recommends avoiding pie charts and three-dimensional graphs of any type. Her position on pie charts, which she terms “evil” in the book, has softened over time, as she now sees an appropriate use case for showing part-to-whole relationships.

Eliminate clutter. Clutter refers to “visual elements which take up space, but don’t increase understanding.” Edward Tufte popularized the concept of clutter when he introduced the concept of chartjunk in The Visual Display of Quantitative Data in 1983.  Building on Tufte’s work, Knaflic observes that clutter creates a cognitive load on the chart reader, making it more difficult to understand the chart’s message. To put this in context, she discusses Gestalt principles, alignment, white space, and contrast. She then shows a six-step decluttering of a sample graph, which results in a dramatic improvement in the graph.

Focus attention where you want it. After getting rid of unneeded detail, Knaflic stresses the importance of focusing the reader’s attention. She reviews preattentive attributes for directing the audience’s attention to key elements of the graph, while also establishing a visual hierarchy. Knaflic discusses the use of preattentive attributes for both text and graphic elements. Among the graphic elements, she identifies the use of size, position on page, and color; noting that color should be used sparingly and consistently.

Think like a designer. Thinking like a designer involves understanding affordances, accessibility, and aesthetics. Affordances highlight the important information, eliminate distractions, and establish a visual hierarchy of information, so the chart elements are displayed in their order of importance. Accessibility ensures that displays can be understood “by people of diverse abilities.” Knaflic stresses the importance of annotation for explaining key trends in your charts. Finally, aesthetics refers to the appearance of the chart. She notes that “Studies have shown that more aesthetic designs are not only perceived as easier to use, but also more readily accepted and used over time …” Anyone can create aesthetically pleasing designs with a basic understanding of design principles.

Tell a story. The final step is to tell your story. Knaflic starts with a discussion of the “magic” of storytelling, first in plays and then in the cinema. After summarizing lessons from storytelling and the written word, she moves on to constructing your graphics to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The techniques vary depending on whether the story is delivered as an oral or written presentation.

Knaflic ties all the steps and lessons-learned in the final chapters. These include a series of case studies and summary of lessons learned. These chapters reinforce the six-step process and the concepts introduced throughout the book.

To supplement Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Kanflic wrote a companion volume, Storytelling with Data: Let’s Practice! (2019), a guide for practicing data visualization. The structure of the practice guide closely follows the structure of the original book. Each section has a recap of a step, practice with Cole, practice on your own, and practice at work. Improving your design skills requires practice and the companion volume steps you through the process in a systematic and comprehensive way. A blog and podcast complement her books.

In addition, Knaflic set up the Storytelling with Data or SWD Community. “This is a place where you can hone your data visualization and storytelling skills through practice, getting and giving feedback, and discussing topics related to effectively communicating with data. Explore, engage, and enhance your data storytelling abilities!” The site features monthly challenges, where readers can exercise and expand their design skills. This can be done at no cost or by joining the premium access alternative for $99 a year to access Data Storyteller office hours, live events, and on-demand videos. As if this weren’t enough, Knaflic also offers public and custom design workshops.

Knaflic’s unique contribution to the data visualization community is her development of a comprehensive ecosystem for learning. Her resources include not only a book, practice guide, community network, and design workshops; but she also has a blog and podcast, where she shares her design experience.


Storytelling with Data Website

Storytelling with Data Community

Storytelling with Data Blog

Storytelling with Data Podcast

Cole Knaflic on Twitter (@storywithdata)

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