Telling powerful stories (and a thank you)

There I am, sitting at a table in Fanalytics at Tableau Conference, a session dedicated to the #datafam community around Tableau Public. I had just competed in the 2019 IronViz after two grueling days of practice and rehearsals. I was exhausted, barely aware of my surroundings, trying to soothe a pulled back muscle, and frantically trying to respond to messages from my family that had live-streamed the event.

So, I didn't immediately react when my name was called for the Tableau Wannabe Podcast's Data Storyteller Extraordinaire award, an award based on nominations and votes from the #datafam community. I heard my name, but it was kind of lost in an echo chamber between my ears - in part because of fatigue, but also in part out of disbelief. I think I hid the tears fairly well, and didn't really say anything when I accepted the trophy, but this was the most heartwarming and validating award I'd ever received. This award was described in conjunction to my [co-]winning the IronViz because, I've been repeatedly told, of such a powerful story.

And this is where my thanks to the community comes in: I say that this was heartwarming and validating because, not even a year ago, I sat in a room during my annual review listening to my boss tell me that my biggest weakness was my storytelling. I was repeatedly told that I lacked an ability to take information and frame it into a compelling story. While the rest of the review was stellar, that specific piece of "constructive" criticism was crushing. Storytelling was something I'd been told was my talent. It had become a strong part of my professional and personal identity, and there I was listening to someone describe it as my biggest weakness. I had a number of mentors assure me that my boss' feedback was simply wrong, and a result of not telling stories his way. Nonetheless, negativity bias controlled my perspective and left me questioning my abilities and identity for quite some time.

Fast forward to Fanalytics, and that moment Emily Kund handed me a star-shaped trophy, and I turned to face the audience, seeing so many I admire who nominated and voted for me, and applauding me. If it weren't for the exhaustion of IronViz I might have sobbed on that stage. The Tableau community reaffirmed and restored my identity, and gave me just the validation my soul needed.

So thank you.

I'd like to share with all of you some of what I've been taught about stories. Some of this teaching came from writing classes and workshops, some of it from mentors, and some of it from research. It's a condensed perspective on what I feel are the core aspects of a meaningful story, the things that transform an interesting message into something more powerful. Along the way, I'll provide you some examples from more popular stories, then I'll show some examples in Tableau, and then I'll use my IronViz story as an example.

However, before we dig into any sort of a process, a couple important points:
  1. If you haven't read Cole Nussbaumer's Storytelling with Data, you're missing out. Nussbaumer's book is the book on the practical application of using charts and visuals for storytelling.  This post will be about crafting the content of a story, but Nussbaumer's book is critical to tell the story. I'd also highly recommend anything by Nancy Duarte.
  2. My storytelling is informed by narrative theory and scriptwriting. As such, I tend to be more of a literature traditionalist in my use of the terms story and narrativeI wrote a [controversial?] piece for Nightingale on our practice's use of the term story. In this piece, I question how often "story" is the correct paradigm for the way we are communicating. This post will be specifically about constructing what the academic literature world describes as a Narrative work, whether that work is a novel, a poem, a movie, or any other art form. Feel free to disagree with how I use certain terms - many people smarter than myself do. 
Without further ado, here are what I believe to be the ingredients to a powerful story.

Truth

Robert McKee, a Hollywood story / scriptwriting consultant and author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, writes "We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth." This is true of all art -- artists are making some statement about the way the world is, whether as a celebration or criticism. This is something that sits above metaphors and even the theme.

An obvious example comes from Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility". The stories of Spider-Man often depict his struggles between enjoying a "normal" life and the moral pull when he knows he can help someone. For a less obvious example, we can look to Avengers: Infinity War. One of the "truths" from that movie dealt with struggling against inevitability (this became didactic in Endgame when Thanos literally said, "I am inevitable"). As a patient with a chronic illness, this truth resonated with me -- I fight against a disease progression that is inevitable. In a bizarre way, Infinity War made very real the truth of struggling against inevitability, and I saw a lot of my life, metaphorically, in those struggles.

If truth is critical in storytelling, it's certainly critical in data storytelling. In data storytelling, we pair our truths with data, facts, and figures. For example, look at Mike Cisneros' visualization, Last Words. The truths of this data story are about tragedy, and the way humans react to the eventuality of their death -- backed with data about those deaths, and the written letters of those past.




Many times our truths may feel less "artful": our truths may be as simple as key takeaways, the call-to-action or the executive summary from the data. But the power of our story is proportional to the power of our truths: stories involving civil rights bring more potential powerful than stories of revenue or profits (note that some may find the latter stories more pertinent or relevant).

For the IronViz, my analysis uncovered a couple meaningful truths: international cuisine is a big part of American taste, and the way the data is generated homogenizes diverse populations. From there, every part of my design and speech was about exposing those truths -- not simply telling them, but showing them.

Telling these truths, in line with Robert McKee's directive, were my responsibilities. To carry out that responsibility, I needed the building blocks of a story: characters and events.


Characters

Characters are the way we experience stories. They act as a sort of conduit for the sensory and emotional experiences. Characters perform something very similar to data visualization in that they translate something abstract into something visual or auditory. It's hard to describe love, but we can see an embrace; it's hard to describe pain, but we can hear cries; it's hard to describe comedy, but we can hear laughter; it's hard to describe joy, but we can see smiles. 

A key part of characters is conflict. Meaningful characters have desires and needs, and struggle to fulfill them. Conflict is the way we learn who these characters really are -- it's one thing to provide a description, but seeing or hearing the way a character overcomes challenges shows the true depth of character. Seeing how characters respond to conflict is what gives characters "agency". In fact, the suffix "-agonist" in protagonist and antagonist references conflict: conflict is a primary definition of each character.

Two similar characters from two different storyworlds are Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. On the surface, one might feel that these characters are different, but those differences are largely the product of setting. We see two characters with an uncertain identity struggling against a villain with ties to their family and their past. As the stories unfold some of the differences between these two grow, but the conflicts still largely remain the same: conflicts of identity, of unsolicited responsibility, and of rising against a stronger villain. Both of these heroes fit into the "coming of age" and "chosen one" archetypes.

For a brilliant example in data storytelling, we can look to Ludovic Tavernier's Two years late. Ludovic showcased aggregate trends in the data with two humanized examples of fictional refugees, using just a few sentences in the beginning to provide meaningful desires, needs, and conflict for these characters. As a result, all of his facts and figures bring empathy, as we have two conduits that help deliver an emotional experience.




In my IronViz story, I chose to speak of myself and my best friend to provide those humanized examples. I could have easily clicked on a granular data point, but by attaching the data to two people, I was able to provide depth and emotional experience through evolving friendship and intimacy. The conflict was built in to the character of my friend as the protagonist of my story: how does he share who he is, his heritage, when he is so far from his home and his family and his own cultural environment?

Seeing the struggles, and the way that characters face them, is a vehicle for our truth. However, we need opportunities to witness those struggles -- and in storytelling, those are simply events.


Events

Events are somewhat simple: a thing happens, and the characters react (or sometimes cause the thing to happen, and then react). It's an opportunity for the conflict to be materialized into something a bit more tangible so that we can witness the challenge. Although every event, or scene, or act may not directly address the greater struggle, they all provide some opportunity for the characters to demonstrate some level of agency in the story -- giving us, as the audience, an opportunity to see more of their character.

Take the viral hit, The Quiet Place. The large-scale event is the appearance of monsters that hunt by sound, forcing the survivors to live in silence. These characters come to life as they work within these constraints - how do Lee and Evelyn raise children in a world where they can't speak? How does the constant life-and-death stress show us their character? The events present the conflict, and the conflict shows us who they are.

For an example in data storytelling, look no further than Get to Know Bean by Sarah Bartlett and Kevin Flerlage. They introduce the protagonist, Bean, but then educationally describe a number of events that provide the conflict: survival against the harsh realities of nature, backed by data as evidence of how many turtles don't survive each event. From these events, we see [anthropomorphically] Bean's perseverance and strength in the face of overwhelming odds.




For my IronViz, I focused on a specific event: a simple dinner with an immigrant. However, behind this event were several implied events, each with conflicts that built to this point: my friend immigrating to the United States, us meeting in college, and the various times we interacted prior to that dinner. The conflicts were less apparent and more internal, but nonetheless real: conflicts of loneliness, of vulnerability to another person, of how you teach someone about who you are. The meal between us, then, was a sort of climax in our story: in a final front against loneliness, my friend risked vulnerability to teach me about his culture through food.

Thus, we have a truth that we experience through characters reacting to events. However, for a story to feel truly powerful, the story must bring irreversible change.

[Irreversible] change

In Story, Robert McKee notes the importance of change in the closing of a story. Every scene, every act, and every story should have change -- but the change across the entire story should be irreversible. This is where the stakes come in, where the characters must risk something. In a story where all changes are reversible, the conflicts lose meaning.

One of the best examples of character development - and change - I've ever seen comes from Billy in the third season of Stranger Things. [SPOILERS] Billy becomes possessed by the Mind Flayer. As the season progress Billy loses more and more of himself, taking his already violent and abusive levels into new and terrifying intention. However, in the final episodes we start seeing backstory, getting an understanding of how an innocent child became violent and abusive -- and in the final episode, Billy managers to fight off the possession, and sacrifices himself to save his sister and her friends. While the most obvious change -- death -- was irreversible, we also saw change in his character as he fought for what was important. While one can argue that his character didn't change but our perception did, from a storytelling perspective the two are similar: Billy's violent and abusive character transformed into a care and selflessness that ultimate led to his self-sacrifice.

In data storytelling, we can see change in all 3 of the examples above: In Last Words, these characters face the eventuality of their death and their priorities change. In Two years late, one immigrant is allowed into the US and able to be with her family; the other is denied, and loses the opportunity to reunite with her family. In Get to Know Bean, Bean reaches adulthood and finds a mate - but nearly alone, relative to her numerous siblings at birth.

In my IronViz, the change was an internal one, and in me. I wanted the irreversible change to be clear, so twice I said: "...forever changed me, and how I see the world". My incredible friend taught me so much, and my life would be very different if he weren't in it. I can't go back to a world where he doesn't exist, and I can't "unlearn" what he has taught me about the world outside of the United States, and Ohio, and Columbus. I am, because of him, a more compassionate and empathetic individual.

In data storytelling, we're often encouraged to make a call-to-action -- and this is a perfect opportunity to address irreversible change by attaching it to our call-to-action, to show the stakes of what's at hand. In the business world, that might be "if we don't act on this opportunity now, we lose the potential for $X in revenue". But, in more important stories, we might have "if we don't act now, a species could go extinct" or "...X patients will die without access to life-saving medicine". A call-to-action is great, but the ones that compel us are the ones that make very clear that we are at a point to make a decision now, and this decision will change our future.


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By no means are these the full considerations of storytelling. Brilliant storytellers like Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, the Russo brothers, the Coen brothers and others take into account many other considerations such as narrative normalization and codes of closure. You might find it interesting to read the fairly short text The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, which discusses these ideas and more in further detail; or, Robert McKee's excellent book, Story. For the sake of data storytelling, these concepts have been helpful, but in many ways feel like the fine details. The things I've listed above -- truth, characters, events, and change -- feel to me like the "core" of a story, and the things we need to share to turn an interesting message into a powerful story.

Again, thank you. Thank you for reading this. Thank you for watching IronViz (if you did) and supporting myself, and Lindsey, and Hesham. Thank you for nominating me for the Datastoryteller Extraordinaire award if you did, and if you didn't, thank you for nominating someone else. Thank you for giving me back a piece of who I am. Thank you for giving me the confidence to be who I am, and to turn interesting messages into powerful stories.

Love y'all.



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