Data is easy, good storytelling is the challenge

December 5, 2012

These days, it’s easier than ever to tell important health, environmental and energy stories with data.

Want to determine how many coal plants in Illinois are violating Clean Air Act standards? This EPA database can help you figure it out (26 of 29 have exceeded limits in the last three years).

Need to find the how out how many times spills from oil and gas companies have tainted groundwater in Colorado? A state database has all the answers (at least 708 times since 2000).

Eager to determine how much money the oil and gas industry is spending on lobbying the California legislature? This website can tell you that (at least $96 million since 2001).

While finding data to tell stories is becoming simpler, telling a compelling story with data is as much of a challenge as ever.

But it’s worth the effort.

An effective and well-crafted story built on data, with an assist from strong graphics and real-world examples, can help nonprofit organizations connect with broad audiences and help put the gears of change in motion.

One recent example was Resource Media’s work to track the growth of toxic algae in Midwest lakes. Our data crunching and outreach helped shine a light on this epidemic of green slime caused largely by fertilizer and manure runoff (see this ABC News story and Atlantic Monthly article).

So how do you do tell stories with data? Here are some quick tips:

  • Will it pay off?: Acquiring and analyzing data can take a lot of time. Before investing too much, ask whether this new information is surprising or powerful enough to make supporters, reporters or decision makers take notice.
  • Sharing the story: Your outreach plan is just as important as the analysis. Will you create an infographic for sharing via social media? Or will it become grist for a news pitch or blog post?
  • Visualize, visualize, visualize: As you begin to crunch numbers, think about how you will present the information. Will your data best be represented as a map, chart or a timeline? Or will it be a prose story with graphic elements? These days, a simple infographic, like this one, can explain your data far more effectively than a list of facts and figures.
  • The “nut graph”: In journalism, the nut graph is the paragraph that explains the whole point of a story. Once you’re knee-deep in data and have identified key trends, craft a nutgraph to help you develop the narrative on the numbers.
  • Run traps: Vet your story and graphics with friends outside your sector to make  sure they are both interesting and accessible.
  • People matter: Data tells us what is happening, but stories explain why it matters. Seek out people whose experience illustrate the real world implications of your data.