The "So What": Telling Stories with Data

When we review a presentation before showing it to a client, someone often asks about the “so what.” Your findings seem reasonable, but so what? What do you want your audience to learn? What action should they take as a result?

If there are charts and graphs in the presentation, those also have to support the “so what.” You can’t just look at data and pick the optimal visualization. You’ll get better results if you first figure out the point you’re making, then design the graph as a supporting illustration.

The Storytelling with Data blog, written by Cole Nussbaumer, is not the only place to learn about good data visualization practices, but it has a more holistic view of communication than many. Yes, Cole talks about the pros and cons of bars, lines, and (shudder) pies, but she goes beyond that to discuss titles, labels, and other accompanying text, and how the shapes and the words come together to make meaning happen.

One of the reasons I like Cole’s blog is that she trades in small data. Her examples tend to feature manageable data sets that might inspire normal people to whip up a graph. So, when she announced a visualization challenge a couple of weeks ago the goal was not to inspire the kind of kinetic sculpture that big companies use to brand themselves as innovators. It was simply to improve upon a set of world population graphs published by The Economist.

While the challenge was to remake the visuals, the biggest problem with the original was the lack of a clear point. The text accompanying the graph was a laundry list of observations:

“The number of people will grow from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050, 100m more than was estimated in the UN’s last report two years ago. More than half of this growth comes from Africa, where the population is set to double to 2.5 billion. Nigeria’s population will reach 413m, overtaking America as the world’s third most-populous country. Congo and Ethiopia will swell to more than 195m and 188m repectively, more than twice their current numbers. India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2022, six years earlier than was previously forecast. China’s population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2028; India’s four decades later at 1.75 billion. Changes in fertility make long-term projections hard, but by 2100 the planet’s population will be rising past 11.2 billion. It will also be much older. The median age of 30 will rise to 36 in 2050 and 42 in 2100—the median age of Europeans today. A quarter of Europe’s people are already aged 60 or more; by 2050 deaths will outnumber births by 32m. The UN warns that only migration will prevent the region’s population from shrinking further.”

What I get from this is, there are going to be a lot more people. Okay. So what?

To me, the big story in the data was the massive projected growth of Africa, and the problems that it could spell for billions of people. Here’s what I made (click to embiggen):


There were other interesting observations that could have been made, but I picked the story that seemed compelling to me and focused on that. The great thing, though, was that other people chose different points (for example, the shifting makeup of the world’s overall population, or how the projections fit with historical trends), and most of them improved on the original in some way. The variety of stories and approaches are on display on the round-up published yesterday, along with Cole’s critique.

Data can clarify, illustrate, and convince, but it doesn’t speak for itself. If you want it to support what you want to say, you have to figure out the “so what” first.