Communicating Data Stories

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Throughout a career, the data scientist will frequently communicate their analysis and conclusions to a variety of audiences, from stakeholders within an organization to hundreds of people at a conference. But unfortunately, learning the art of communication plays second fiddle to hard skill data science techniques such as machine learning and data visualization. Even if you believe this skill can be cultivated at the workplace through experience, we can all benefit from better communication. This post focuses on developing these communication skills, applicable to all careers, by means of simplistic narrative structure.

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Disclaimer: I am not a self-proclaimed expert in communicative practices. The following denotes the most important takeaways from the Communicating Data Stories course at Stockton University, in hopes that the reader will apply these concepts to their own work.

The book used for the course Communicating Data Stories is Randy Olsen’s Houston, We Have a Narrative, which can be found here for about $15 paperback. The author is Scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olsen, not Life Epigenetics AI researcher Randy Olsen.

Narrative Structure

Oslen’s book posits the scientist is prone to experiencing narrative deficiency: an insufficent understanding of narrative, or not knowing how to apply the power of storytelling to their scientific work. He gives special importance to a call to action for scientists to develop story sense, or narrative intuition, which like most things in life, require practice before mastery is obtained. An effective way to develop narrative intuition is to prioritize simplistic narrative structure by using the Dobzhansky Template, the And, But Therefore template, and McKee’s Triangle

Dobzhansky Template

Theodosius Dobzhansky was a famous geneticist who said one of the most important statements in biological philosophy:

“Nothing about biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

This statement encapsules biology in context of evolution, which is the overarching narrative telling the story of how different facets of biology, such as biochemistry, microbiology, and genetics, are tied together by the concept of evolution.

This quote by Dobzhansky can be applied to any topic by making the template generic:

Nothing about ______________________ makes sense except in the light of ______________________.

This template helps to find a central theme that embraces the heart and soul of the narrative. Finding the right words, especially for the second blank, takes practice and effort. If you are just lukewarm after proposing a plausible word, most likely there is a better word that will serve as the foundation for your story.

Here are a few other examples of the Dobzhansky template in action:

  1. Apple: Nothing about Apple Computers makes sense except in the light of innovation.

  2. Wawa: Nothing about Wawa makes sense except in the light of convenience (Don’t know what a Wawa is?).

  3. Tom Brady: Nothing about Tom Brady makes sense except in the light of discipline.

For this post, a solid Dobzhansky statement would be:

Nothing about communication makes sense except in the light of simplicity and structure.

Here is Dobzhansky’s comments regarding a story that lack a central theme/focus:

Without that light, it becomes a pile of sundry facts—some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

During the brainstorming stages of a project, devote some time to thinking about an ideal Dobzansky template that establishes a central theme to guide your thinking process that ultimately creates a meaningful picture for your story.

And, But, Therefore

The And, But, Therefore (ABT) narrative structure is considered the “DNA of story” that serves to organize the writer’s thoughts in a concise and compelling manner. ABT is the crux of any story. It is the essential components of the narrative that needs to be conveyed so the reader understands what is happening. The structure of ABT is the following:

_______________ and _______________, but _______________, therefore _______________.

Here is ABT applied to The Wizard of Oz:

There is a little girl living on a farm in Kansas, and her life is boring, but one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of Oz, therefore she must undertake a journey to find her way home.

Simple, concise, and gets the main message of the movie across. Extremely powerful. Once you create this template for a PowerPoint presentation for your day job or a semester long research paper, it is easy to reference your ABT template as a roadmap to a single cohesive idea that you want the audience to take away from your findings.

The ABT follows the traditional three act play structure: beginning (thesis), middle (antithesis), and end (synthesis). The ‘And’ component establishes the situation, the ‘But’ establishes the conflict, and the ‘Therefore’ resolves the conflict. Olsen is credited for coining this template as ‘ABT’, this narrative structure has actually been intertwined with story for centuries. Although Olsen frequently bashes modern day scientists in his book, he acknowledges the communicative storytelling gifts of Watson and Crick, codiscoverers of the DNA molecule. It turns out they used the ABT framework with their landmark paper Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids:

Credit: J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, 1953

In a similar manner for the Dobzhansky Statement, I also created an ABT for this post:

Communicating is an important skill for the modern scientist, as analysis and research is only as good as the quality of the presentation. But as scientists learn new skills, I posit communication plays second fiddle to learning hard skill techniques. Therefore, this post serves as a supplemental guide to enhance communication skills by employing simplistic narrative structure.

McKee’s Triangle

McKee’s Triangle sheds light on how different types of narrative play into the perception and engagement of the audience. The three main story plots are archplot, mini-plot and anti-plot, with a focus on comparing archplot and mini-plot.

Anti-plot

The anti-plot storyline is less important for our needs; it is essentially non-narrative structure. Examples are classic comedies like Wayne’s World and Monty Python. Anti-plot is worth mentioning for clarification.

Mini-plot

This narrative structure focuses on developing character stories rather than the plot itself.

  • Non-linear timeline

  • No causality: events happening for no particular reason

  • Several protagonists

  • Passive protagonists: character is unsure if he/she is the hero or villian, contemplates taking action

  • Open-ended conclusion: cliffhanger endings,

A great example of a show with mini-plot is HBO’s Westworld.

Archplot

Archplot has all the story elements of a classical narrative. Basically the opposite of the above mini-plot characteristics.

  • Linear timeline

  • Causality: events happen for logical reasons

  • Single Protagonist

  • Active Protagonist:

  • Closed Ending: definitive conclusion to the story

The Wizard of Oz is a prime example of archplot.

Application to Data Communication

It is not concidence that numerous movies considered all time greats are built upon the archplot narrative structure. The masses are subconsciously drawn towards archplot storylines. The more archplot tenets violated, the less people interested in a story/research findings. Therefore, it imperative to keep these archplot attributes in mind when developing a narrative. Oslen says it best with an elaboration of what it means to lean towards miniplot:

Credit: Olsen, 2015

Extra Storytelling Tips

  • The power of storytelling rests in specifics, as the human mind tends to default towards generalities.

  • Narrative benefits the storyteller because it activates the brain and unifies the thinking of the audience.

  • Strive for short, succient titles.

  • The two worst possible ways communication can go wrong are boring and/or confusing interpretations.

  • “Truths can not walk on their own legs” - Karlyn Campbell. Truths must be explained, defended, and spread through language, argument, and appeal.

  • Sending the narrative off is a great thing, but only once, and utilize a singular narrative, as more than one is confusing.

  • When creating narrative content, capture the “inner monologue”, as nobody wants to listen to a person with no emotions.

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