At a Glance Storytelling

At a Glance Storytelling

I did not start my professional career as an analyst.  I never majored in statistics, or computer science, or even math.  Instead, I got my degree in interpreting, specifically American Sign Language.  I spent years helped Deaf and Hearing clients break down barriers and understand each other.  I acted as a relay, intervening when culture threatened to overload the circuit and finding new ways to bring forth thoughts that were not my own.  I delved into ethics, understanding my role clearly, using decision models to help me quickly remediate things when the interpretation started to go awry.

Contrary to popular belief, interpreting is hardly word for word.  It's meaning for meaning.  It's why when an English-speaker says it's raining cats and dogs that I inflect and give the visual, not the literal, interpretation.  I convey the amount of rain, its speed, its sheer magnitude.  If it's my conversation, my story, I may wax upon poetic and illustrate how the rain runneth over, how it overtakes the gutters, flooding the streets and threatening to drench all in its path to the core.  A good story puts you in that moment.

American Sign Language specifically focuses on storytelling.  There's a number of lexical rules and conventions around storytelling.  You can "pan in" to the scene.  You can start with when it occurred, the type of day, what was in the scene.  You can look back deep into the past, letting folks know with one sign that this is a memory.  What's imperative though, is to identify the time period - in the past, last week, today?  When describing an area, a signer starts large and then pans through the details.  Everything is from the signer's perspective, so confusion around left and right only occurs with second language learners.

Visual storytelling requires an understanding of how the eye thinks.  The eye looks for action, for continuity, for a logical path.  Too much action in different areas diverts the attention: ASL storytellers know this.  Even when painting the intersection of two scenes - a person approaching a wild group of teenagers, two storms growing closer, an accident in the works - one moves less than the other.  The eye takes in the whole picture first, noting the ocean and sand as a beach, and then looks for the details: children swimming, sand castles slowly dissipating in the wind, a lifeguard observing.  Continuity keeps the eye from becoming confused: was it on the left or the right, two faces or a vase?  The eye prefers leisurely observing versus hard glances, taking in each item and understanding it.  Too quick of movement obscures its visibility and loses meaning.

The same rules apply when putting data to paper.  Too many lines, colors and charts become lost in the mix.  A lack of central focus obscures the story.  A directionless dashboard leaves the audience confused: where to first?

At a glance storytelling centers on a 5-second view of data.  What can I learn in these few moments?  What questions can I quickly answer?  Am I doing well by meeting objectives or falling behind in my goals?  What's most deserving of my attention?  Can I take my glasses off or obscure my vision and still understand?  It takes into account logical paths: Western audiences will read the data from left to right, then move to the next defined level.  It realizes too many colors obscure the scene: what do they all mean?  Treat color like glitter: unless you're Cher, there is such a thing as too much.

Let's face it: your data cannot pull this off.

Instead of focusing on all the numbers, focus on the meaning.  Within that, you can integrate your numbers and expand on your message.  Need to show how close you are to a goal?  A bullet chart with well-placed numbers can help.  Trying to identify high performers?  Rank them with a bar chart and show where the average or benchmark falls.  Be aware of views on shapes.  An upward triangle is often used to indicate growth whereas the inverse shows a decline.  These things factor into your story.

Most of all, though, use ethics and established decision-making models.  Be true to the message of the data.  Tricks like starting at a certain point can overemphasize the change or convey the wrong message around growth.  After all, it's not always the your story to tell.

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