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The Power of Visual Data Stories

📄 Contents

  1. The Science of Storytelling
  2. The Power of Stories
  3. Summary

This chapter uses real-life and quintessential examples to analyze the power of visual data stories to communicate discoveries and insights hidden in data. You ground these lessons by taking time to understand what makes visualization and stories so powerful to the human brain from both a cognitive and an anthropological perspective by comparing the brain on data versus the brain on stories.

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter uses quintessential and real-life examples from the visual storytelling canon to display the powerful ability of data stories to communicate discoveries and insights hidden in data. We will ground these lessons by taking time to understand what makes data visualization and stories so influential to the human brain from both a cognitive and an anthropological perspective.

The Science of Storytelling

The world of data is changing. So is how we tell stories about it.

In a September 2016 interview with NPR Marketplace,1 National Geographic editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg spoke to host Kai Ryssdal about the power of visual storytelling, which has provided a transformative conduit for the publication in the new digital era. Speaking to National Geographic’s conversion from traditional print magazine to social media heavyweight, Goldberg commented that “everything is visual today”—especially stories. It’s worth noting that National Geographic is dominating visual storytelling online, using powerful imagery to captivate and educate 19 million Snapchat users, 60 million Instagram followers, and 50 million Facebook followers. The magazine is also throwing its hat in the ring with data visualization with its Data Points blog.

Media and journalists are not the only ones putting emphasis on data storytelling, although they arguably have been a particularly imaginative bunch of communicators. Today we’ve seen the power of storytelling used to color in conversations on just about every type of data imaginable—from challenging astronomical principles, to visualizing the tenure pipeline at Harvard Business School, to quantifying the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. In every organization and every industry, data stories are becoming the next script for how we share information.

For as diverse as data stories can be, they all have one thing in common: They give us something to connect to in a very literal sense. Let’s delve into the power of stories, first by looking behind the curtain at the science of storytelling and then looking at some incredible data stories over time to see how they have capitalized on the secret sauce of storytelling.

The Brain on Stories

In Chapter 1 I mentioned that evidence exists of the cognitive effects of storytelling embedded within our neurology. Here’s how: When we are presented with data, only two parts of our brain respond. These are Wernicke’s area—responsible for language comprehension—and Broca’s area—responsible, again, for language processing. For the very powerful human brain, data is easy. The brain’s response to these stimuli is a relatively simple input-and-respond transaction that requires the utilization of these two basic areas. Because we’re focused only on seeing and responding to information (agree/disagree), there’s no great need to overexert our neuro-horsepower.

Unlike simple data, stories require a substantial cognitive boost. Here’s an easy thought exercise. Imagine that tonight we have pasta on the menu. However, our pantry is empty, so to prepare this meal we need to go to the market. Let’s make a quick mental list of our ingredients: pasta, some tomato sauce, perhaps some herbs, garlic, and Parmesan cheese—if we’re feeling fancy we can grab a loaf of garlic bread, too. Now, let’s pretend we get to the market, only to discover it’s closed. So, instead of cooking we decide instead to go to our favorite Italian restaurant (it’s okay if yours is Olive Garden—mine is, too) and order something from the menu. Suddenly the image changes: We’re no longer looking at a bunch of individual items on a grocery list; we’re imagining a waiter setting down a big, beautiful dish of flavorful and delicious spaghetti in front of us. Perhaps we also hear the buzzing backdrop of restaurant sounds—water glasses, clinking silverware, and so on. If we think about it long enough—or if we’re hungry enough—we can almost taste the food.

This is the difference between visualizing data, and presenting a story: rather than itemizing a list of ingredients (data points) we are presenting a full, sensory-engaging dining experience (see Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.1 Visualizing versus presenting.

You can think of this storytelling experience in a more traditional way, too, by considering the difference in reading a novel and watching a film. When reading, you are tasked with using your imagination—you’re reading the raw data of words and building the story in your own mind. Conversely, when watching a film, your imagination is off the hook. Images of characters and settings, costumes, spoken dialogue, music, and so on are displayed for you on the screen. When you watch a live presentation, like a play or a 4D movie, you also get a few extra pieces of sensory information, like the smell of a smoke machine or carefully chosen scents to accompany the story pumping through the air.

These extra storytelling details have a profound effect on the brain (see Figure 2.2). Beyond the two areas of the brain that activate when presented with data, when presented with a story, five additional areas respond. These are

  • The visual cortex (colors and shapes)

  • The olfactory cortex (scents)

  • The auditory cortex (sounds)

  • The motor cortex (movement)

  • The sensory cortex/cerebellum (language comprehension)

    Figure 2.2

    Figure 2.2 The brain on stories.

The Human on Stories

Beyond the sciences, there’s also a lot of truth to the old saying “everyone loves a good story.”

Storytelling has been an integral part of human expression and culture throughout time. All human cultures tell stories, and most people derive a great deal of pleasure from them—even if they are untrue (think of fantastical stories or fables). Beyond entertainment, stories teach us important lessons; we learn from them. In many cases they are how we transmit information—whether through metaphoric tales, instructions, or legends. Stories also have the ability to transport us; we give the author license to stretch the truth—although, in data storytelling, this license extends only as far as it can before the data loses its elasticity and begins to break down. Data stories, above all, must be true. They are works of narration, but of the non-fiction variety.

Okay, so we love stories—but why? There’s no easy answer to this question, and frankly from academe to industry, the research is crowded with books and articles attempting to explain the cognitive basis of all storytelling and literature under the heading of storytelling psychology. That said, we can distill all of these dialogues into two primary possible contenders for why we tell stories: the need to survive (fitness) and the need to know (closure).


As much as we might try to argue it, human beings did not evolve to find truth. We evolved to defend positions and obtain resources—oftentimes regardless of the cost—to survive. These concepts are at the heart of Darwinian theory of natural selection: survival of the fittest as the mechanism, and our ability to overcome (or, biologically, to reproduce), fitness.

Human biology aside to survive in competitive and often unstable environments—whether wilderness or business—one thing we’ve always had to do is understand other people. In fact, one of our most expensive cognitive tasks where we exert an impressive amount of energy is in trying to figure out other people: predict what they’re going to do, understand motivations, assess relationships, and so forth. Beyond people, we are also driven to understand how things work. If we know how they work, we can conquer, fix, or control. All of these lead to winning, which equates to survival and continuation. Stories act as guides to give us the information and confidence we need to harness this knowledge. They increase our fitness.


Aside from being bent on survival, humans also tend to require closure. The few philosophical exceptions notwithstanding, in general we don’t enjoy ongoing questions and curiosities with no resolution—we need endings, even unhappy ones. We simply can’t abide cliffhangers; they’re sticky in the worst of ways, bouncing around in our brains until we can finally “finish” them and put them to rest. There’s actually a term for this phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. It was named for Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who demonstrated that people have a better memory for unfinished tasks that they do for finished ones. Today, the Zeigarnik effect is known formally as a “psychological device that creates dissonance and uneasiness in the target audience.”

In essence, the Zeigarnik effect speaks to our human need for endings. No matter the story’s goal—to focus, align, teach, or inspire—we build narratives to foster imagination, excitement, even speculation. Successful narratives are those that are able to grab the audience’s attention, work through a message, and then resolve our anxiety with a satisfactory ending. Thus, stories are therapeutic—they give us closure.

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