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July 18, 2019

What The Pigeon Taught Me About Data Storytelling

By: Shawn Parks

“People have no idea how much work goes into achieving simplicity.”

There are a lot of things I learned about life by becoming a parent. Some are big ones, like humility, dedication, and patience (or my lack thereof). Others are relatively small ones:  classic children’s books are still popular, technology helps me stay organized, and, oh, they changed how to do math.  

Granted, not everyone reading this blog spends their evenings reading two to six children’s books. I do, as do many other parents—so, we write what we know! If you’re not familiar with Mo Willems by name, you undoubtedly are familiar with his work. From old classics like writing sketches for “Sesame Street,” to new classics like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” and the Elephant and Piggie series of 25 books. Still not ringing a bell? How about winning six Emmys and three Caldecott Honors? He has a style that is simple, balanced, and entertaining. Kids like this stuff and parents do, too.

But this isn’t a history on Willems. This is what I learned from him about telling stories.

I saw an NPR article where he said, 

If you were to look at all of my drawings without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings … And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

I instantly related this to how we treat data, reports, and dashboards. We’ve been saying this a lot lately, and others in business have been struggling with it for decades. How do we provide the right balance of information, without being overwhelming? And how do we do it in a format that’s easy to consume?

“I write for functional illiterates.”

The challenge so many of us have with raw data, and even visualizations, is that there is not enough meaning. Or there are too many pictures and still no value. What we achieve with data storytelling is providing the words about your data, partnered with the right balance of visuals. Historically, we had to choose, and now we don’t.

In a New Yorker article, Rivka Galchen wrote: 

One can ‘read’ Willems’s stories not just through the words but through the shifting shapes and space.

Does this trigger the phrase “drill down” to anyone else? We should double-click on that point to see what the reason is. If you play buzzword Bingo with marketing collateral, we collectively love writing that our software is interactive, dynamic, responsive. We play with the graph because it’s not giving us what we are actually looking for. We the viewer have to make sense of it. All of these terms come to mind when I visualize the shifting shapes and space that help communicate concepts to toddlers and other early readers. Today, our business tools do not do this.

On one hand, you could take this as “All business people are idiots” or “You all have the attention span of a 5-year-old.” Being a marketing professional myself with the attention span of a 10-year-old, I think the bigger commentary here is that professionals have competing priorities. It’s not that we don’t get it, it’s that we need it simple. There are lots of things that we need to balance. You don’t always have time to read a report or interpret a dashboard to get an answer. Nor should we.

“Because these stories aren’t meant to be read once—they’re meant to be read a thousand times.”

That’s what I love about data storytelling. It’s simple. It’s meaningful. I just get it.

And so can you.

As a parent, I read to my kids (you should, too!). But have you ever read “We Are in a Book” to your boss? If you take me literally, let me know how that goes. More importantly, the point is to routinely communicate in a way that is compelling to your team, your CEO, and your coworkers.  

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