Telling Your Program’s Story with Data Visualization
How many times have you worked tirelessly on a report that communicates your program successes and points to areas that need to be addressed to make your program even better?
A report you are so proud of because it captures all the extensive data you’ve been collecting.
A report that is so long and so vast you feel you should be awarded with another degree!
Only to realize that your precious report has barely been looked at and none of the things you’d like to see changed to improve your program have happened…
It’s possible that your report didn’t communicate the story behind the data. Last week, YouthREX hosted a webinar, “How to Tell a Story with Data Visualization”, facilitated by Ann K. Emery of Depict Data Studio, that addressed the concerns of the “dusty shelf report.”
If I were to use one word to describe this webinar it would be invaluable. One of the main reasons for collecting and reporting data is so that we can learn from what has been done and then share those learnings with others, with the hopes of making better programs. Ann was able to walk us through how to transform our data from traditional reporting to sharing the story we want to tell with just some minor tweaks.
Before starting our data visualization journey (or “dataviz” journey, as she calls it), Ann urged us to think about our audience. Is your report intended for a technical audience or a non-technical audience? More than likely, the audience will be non-technical (that is, they don’t live and breathe data), which means that the traditional way of presenting your data could likely lead to the report sitting on a dusty shelf. The two ideas I found to be most useful to consider when starting your dataviz journey are simple and easy-to-implement:
Colour in graphs is good, right? Colour makes the chart come alive. Colour makes it more interesting. As Ann demonstrated, this isn’t usually the case. Colour can make your chart so busy that the data get lost. Ann recommends making the chart monochromatic with grey, and then using only one colour to highlight the one finding you want to tell the story about. This easy-to-implement fix was echoed in the comments of others who attended the webinar.
Occasionally, it may be that a negative finding is the most important story being told by the data. Although Ann doesn’t recommend that we avoid sharing these findings, she does caution against it; this can get your audience defensive and lead to doubts over the reliability and validity of the data. She advises that this approach be used when reporting to those with whom you have a long-standing relationship.
Chart titles need to convey every piece of information found in a chart, right? I mean, they even teach that in elementary school during data and graphing units (e.g., The percentage of each service accessed by boys and girls in the Stand Up program over a six-month period). Wrong again!
Ann recommends the title contain the take-away message. What is it that you really want the audience to take away from the chart? Use that take-away message as your title (e.g., Girls accessed more services in the Stand Up program). To make the message stand out even more, consider highlighting specific parts of the title (e.g., Girls accessed more services in the Stand Up program). This was another area reflected in many of the comments from webinar participants (listed as their ‘AHA Moment’, as well as the technique they will put into action).
With my background in research, I would fall into the technical audience category. And to be honest, a couple of things Ann discussed go directly against my training, including how to title charts. Picking and choosing the data to highlight caused me a bit of anxiety. Doesn’t that mean I’m misrepresenting the data? But the answer is no. The data are all still there. I’ll just be telling a story, rather than simply presenting the data. And by telling a story, I’m decreasing the chances that my report will end up sitting unread on a dusty shelf.
Echoing my exact thoughts, one webinar participant wrote, “I feel like the webinar gave me permission to use these creative tools. Now I have the ‘evidence’ to justify the use of these fun tools!”
Here are a couple of other easy fixes Ann shared in the webinar to keep in mind when using dataviz to tell your story:
- don’t use all capitals (it takes longer to read!),
- ensure all of your text is horizontal (vertical or diagonal text is harder to read!),
- use the branded colours of your program, agency or organization (found in logos and on websites, for example),
- remove everything that does not need to be there (including graph lines if it improves readability!), and
- use icons (yes, you can use pictures in your graphs!).
I know now is the time many of us are preparing our reports to various stakeholders. I know I am working on a few myself with deadlines in the upcoming months. This webinar could not have come at a better time. I cannot wait to apply these techniques to my next reports.
Want to learn more about how to visualize your data and share the stories of your program with stakeholders? Consider signing up for YouthREX’s free 4-week online advanced program evaluation certificate, Using Spreadsheets in Program Evaluation. It covers the key concepts, tools, and techniques required to manage and analyze quantitative data for a youth program evaluation. Module Four of this four module certificate focuses on data visualization and storytelling using spreadsheets.