Storytelling with the Showmanship of Charts

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts don’t have be dull, eye-boggling data dumps. They can tell stories in lively, colorful and entertaining ways if you put your imagination to work converting data into doodles.

Charts are an undervalued storytelling device. The problem with most charts is that they are designed by number nerds, not storytellers.

With apologies to Excel users, showing a bunch of numbers doesn’t equal a good story. Explaining what the numbers mean is the storyline that is missing.

There are many ways charts can tell stories powerfully. Here are some:

Simple Charts

Southwest Airlines introduced itself with large ads that featured a single chart comparing its fares from Portland to several destinations with other airlines. The simplicity of the chart made it impossible to miss the message – Southwest Airlines was the low-cost alternative.

The airline reprised that original chart recently with a similar simple chart illustrating the baggage and other fees that Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge. Not fancy, but effective.

Annotated Charts

Portland-based economist Bill Conerly produces the Businomics Newsletter that contains a lot of data rendered in charts. Conerly annotates the charts with what amounts to a key message that puts the data into a meaningful context.

Complex Charts

Visual communications guru Edward Tufte deplores PowerPoint because of its reductionist character. He advocates sharing complex data in comprehensible packages. His favorite example is a chart depicting Napolean’s ill-fated march to Moscow. Created by Charles Joseph Minard, the graphic plots the demise of Napoleon’s dancing and retreating army to temperature and time scales. The story of what happened is inescapable despite the detail.

Entertaining Charts

Playing off the idea of a pie chart, the graphic  below serves as a teaching tool for effective writing. It puts a lot of information on the plate in an easy-to-grasp, viewer-friendly fashion.

Explanatory Chart

Charts can act as visual explanations, as does this graphic in explaining the appropriate volume for voices for children from the classroom to playground.

This graphic uses a cat motif to explain the essence of various social media sites.

Shareable Chart

Charts in the shape of infographics can be highly informative and suitable for sharing. They are effectively scrollable stories.

Teachable Moment Charts

Charts can depict the dangers to virtue or use data to warn of drowning in too much data.

The bottom line is that charts can tell stories, but it takes more than 3D pie charts and data points. It takes a little imagination to picture how your data can show a story.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.