The Data Storyteller with a Dragon Problem

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The interviewer, a man with frightful eyebrows, looked sternly over his glasses at Willow Scoop. “We need you to tell stories about our data. Stories to help us improve our manufacturing productivity. You have experience of this, yes?”

Willow Scoop had no experience at all, but was so desperate for the job she said, “Loads,” before asking, “What sort of data do you have?”

The interviewer wrinkled his nose. “Well, as you know, here at Dragon Control, we make bolt throwers to kill dragons. So we have data about how fast our team are working, whether we have enough wood and rope, how many bolt throwers we’re making per quarter, et cetera. The problem is, we have all this data sitting there, but we’re not looking at it. We’re just getting on with things, concentrating on what we’re doing, never how we’re doing.”

Willow frowned. “And is there a problem with how you’re doing?”

“Yes. We’re not killing enough dragons because we’re not making enough bolt throwers. If we don’t buck up our ideas, there’ll be no sheep left in Atlassia because the dragons will have eaten them all. We’ve got bottlenecks somewhere but without a proper view of our data we don’t know where or what they are. We need you to help us get a handle on it. Can you do it?”

“Yes.” Willow said it without thinking, mainly because she’d always dreamed of being a storyteller and this was her chance.

The man’s eyebrows bristled excitedly. “Great. When can you start?”

Willow Scoop spent much of her first day waiting for it to rain because Dragon Control stored all of their data in the cloud. When it did, she collected a bucket full of data on the company’s bolt thrower production and started drinking it all in. There were statistics for everything, but Willow didn’t know how she was going to turn any of it into a story. She realized she needed help.

That night, she rode out of Atlassia to the Big Data Mine, where scores of data scientists were using hammers and pickaxes to drill down into their data.

Willow walked up to the lead miner and shouted over all the drilling, “Could you point me in the direction of a data storyteller, please?”

The miner pointed at a creature resembling a pink ball of fluff clasping a pickaxe and Willow scrambled over to it. For a moment she thought it was one of the Softs, then realized it was a member of the smaller subspecies called the Micro Softs. She asked it if it could help her turn all the data she’d been given into a story to tell the bolt thrower production team.

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The Micro Soft suggested sorting through all the figures and putting the most important ones in a grid, arranged in columns and rows. “Do that and you’ll excel at telling stories in no time,” it said, before adding, “Ooo, ‘Excel’. That’s a good name.”

So Willow left the mine and rode back to Dragon Control, hauled all the workers off the factory floor into a meeting room, and shared her grid of numbers with them.

Unfortunately, although a couple of the workers were enchanted, most were staring out of the window or on their smartstones.

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So the next day Willow returned to the Big Data Mine. This time she was pointed in the direction of a woman with multi-colored hair and bright, patterned clothes called Jira. She told her how the Micro Soft had recommended a grid of numbers.

Jira scrunched her nose in disapproval. “No, no, no. Bloody Micro Soft doesn’t know what it’s talking about. You won’t get people’s attention—or engagement—just by listing numbers in a table. Countless rows of numbers are hard to read, and you have to scrutinize every number to know what’s going on. Why not translate the numbers into visuals?”

“Visuals?” said Willow. “What sort of visuals?”

“Why, charts of course! Charts let people see trends and anomalies instantly. They enable you to tell stories with your data. Pictures paint a thousand numbers, you know!”

“Brilliant!” Willow was elated—finally she was getting somewhere. “What sort of charts should I make?”

Jira showed Willow how to make pie charts, bar charts, funnel charts, line graphs, heat maps and scatter plots out of her data. Willow went back to Dragon Control, called another meeting, and presented the workers with an array of stunning and colorful charts to demonstrate the data points she’d previously shown them in table form. Willow stood there silently, flicking through the charts she’d drawn up. This time more people paid attention.

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However, as soon as the meeting was over, most of the workers forgot what they’d seen, bolt thrower production saw little improvement, and the dragon problem in Atlassia escalated, with increasing numbers of sheep getting roasted by fiery dragon breath each day.

Willow thought about quitting but returned once more to the Big Data Mine to see if she could find out what she was missing.

This time she met a woman called Eldar Street, who told her that the Micro Soft and Jira had only given her half the story, so to speak.  

“There are three things that you need to tell data stories,” said Eldar Street. “The first is the data points you want to report on. You have that. These are the figures you put in your grid. The second thing is visuals. You have that as well. Your visuals are the charts you made out of those figures. The third thing is a narrative. That’s what you’re missing.”

“And what is a narrative?” said Willow.

“A storyline. Haven’t you ever seen one of those movies with spectacular visuals but no plot to speak of? Like Independence Day: Resurgence?”

Willow had no idea what she was talking about. “Movies?”

“Oh, sorry,” said Eldar Street, laughing. “Wrong century. Let me put it another way. You mentioned you stood there silently when presenting your charts, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well don’t do that. Look at what the charts are showing and explain to your audience what insights they can glean from them. I don’t mean saying, ‘This chart shows that our work in progress is x% bigger here than it is there.’ That’s an annotation, not a narrative. A narrative is saying, ‘The reason we’re not producing quickly enough is that we have bottlenecks here and here, possibly the result of this, that, or the other, which is why we should consider doing this and then this.’ There’s your story. The numbers and the charts are just there to help you tell it.”   

With renewed confidence, Willow raced back to Dragon Control, looked again at the charts she’d made earlier, and used them to structure a narrative. Calling another meeting, she told the workers a story.

A story about how the machines they were using to make the springs for the bolt throwers were old and clunky and that they should consider investing in newer ones. How a constant shortfall of rope was causing delays in production and that they should think about changing suppliers. And how they needed more specialists on the factory floor, because the ones they did have were overworked and kept burning out.

And she used a beautiful set of charts to bring her story to life.

As a result of the meeting, Dragon Control realized at last what they needed to do to get production back on track before Atlassia’s entire sheep population succumbed to hungry dragons.

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And THAT’s the power of data storytelling.

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.