How to Improve Your Writing Quality with Data Storytelling

Since the earliest days of humanity people have told stories to each other in different forms. Storytelling has serious traditions in every culture. Myths, legends, tales, poems, folk songs all show the endeavour humans have always had to connect to each other, to people from other cultures and to the next generations.

In our interconnected, globalised world there’s a bigger need than ever for the kind of human connection and understanding that storytelling can convey.

New technologies such as the big data revolution, data visualization and data analytics tools allow us to raise the quality of our stories by backing them up with relevant data. Probably the most popular form of data storytelling is infographics, but more and more websites use data stories and visual data to convey its message in a more effective way, and engage their audiences on a deeper level.

In this post we will take a look at how data storytelling works in practice, and how it can help you to make your writing more persuasive and authentic.

How Data Storytelling Can Level Up Your Writing

Data need stories and stories need data. Data without stories are boring, bare and it’s hard to make sense of them. Stories without data are less truthworthy, and might be seen as if they were just arbitrary made up.

If we use data to back up our stories we can prevent presumptions of being inaccurate, or that we manipulate our data. Well-chosen data can serve as proof.

Data storytelling or data journalism is a new form of written communication in which the author analyzes a large data set, and filters out the relevant part. With other words data storytellers transform big data to small data with the purpose of finding the accurate and digestible data set that they can use to illustrate their story the best.

In fact, data storytelling is such a big thing nowadays that this summer Google launched a new product under the name of Google News Lab to support it.

Google News Lab explains quite accurately how data-driven storytelling can level up the quality of your writing:

“New platforms and technologies have opened up the playing field for reporting, and journalists and entrepreneurs are developing more dynamic, engaging, and powerful ways to tell stories than ever before”.

Of course data storytelling is not only restricted to journalists but everyone who actually needs to convey a message, such as copywriters, designers, marketers, and bloggers.

Skills of a Data Storyteller
IMAGE: Boston University, College of Communication

How To Find Relevant Data

We are lucky as these days there are many resources out there that weren’t available previously for the public. Just think about open data, open access publishing or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) that ship high-quality and accessible knowledge to all parts of the world. As the world is full of information, finding the relevant data is more and more a “needle in a haystack” kind of problem.

The first task of data storytelling is to find the needle you need (the small dataset) in a huge haystack of data. You need a needle that matches the thread (the narrative) of the story so you can use them together to sew a strong and valid piece (the data story) that you or your client can happily wear.

First of all, the data you find need to be truthworthy. The internet is full of misinformation so you have to be cautious. Sometimes you can find good information and useful hints in blog posts and forums but these sources that are better double-checked, and backed up with other alternate sources.

The bigger and more reputable a data source is, the better. University web sites, open access journals, national statistics offices such as the British Office for National Statistics, big reputable organizations such as the American Federal Reserve, or international organizations such as the UN usually serve information and a knowledgebase that is reliable and trusted by the vast majority of people.

Google News Lab has several instructional videos about how to use Google’s different tools to find the relevant data you need to be a reliable and interesting data storyteller.

Here we mention three tools that we think are the most useful, but you can find information about many other Google tools in the Research section of Google News Lab.

2. Advanced Search

Google’s Advanced Search feature enables you to research with precision. If you click on the little gear icon on Google’s home page, you can select the “Advanced Search” option that takes you to the Advanced Search screen where you can fine-tune your search query.

You can search for the exact phrase, omit certain words, narrow your search based on language, region, domain, last update and file type, and there are many other options that can lead you to the most accurate dataset.

Google Advanced Search

2. Public Data Explorer

Google’s Public Data Explorer is a handy data research and data visualization tool. It aggregates datasets from trusted sources such as the World Bank or the Eurostat, and lets you monitor change over time, and compare metrics based on region, industry, country, gender, and many other variables.

You can choose from many data visualization options such as line charts, bar charts, map charts and bubble charts. You can even save the datasets you created in your Google Profile, so you can return to them later. You can reach Public Data Explorer here.

Google Public Data Explorer

3. Google Trends

Google Trends lets you explore different topics, and under its “Trending Stories” section you can see which queries are the most searched on Google at that time. You can use this handy tool to see how the interest for a certain term has changed over time, and you can compare the popularity of different terms, too.

You can also find the geographical regions where the given search term was the most popular, and Google Trends even gives the option to take a look at related searches. Google Trends have many cool use cases, for example The Washington Post used it to produce a Daily Misery Index by analyzing depression related search terms throughout the year.

Google Trends - Daily Misery Index
IMAGE: The Washington Post

How to Find the Right Tools

After you have found the appropriate data, you need to visualize them. Public Data Explorer and Google Trends visualize data on the go, so if you use them you don’t have to worry about how to present them to your visitors.

Google Maps also enables you to easily visualize geolocation-based data. We have a great tutorial here on about how to customize Google Maps to create interactive and information-rich maps that you can embed into your website.

Google My Maps

Google has another really cool geo-based data visualization tool called Google Earth Pro that was made free by Google this year. Google Earth Pro is not an online tool, you have to download it to your computer. The software provides you with a 3D interactive globe with sophisticated data visualization, analysis and drawing tools.

Google Earth Pro

More Resources

There are many other open-source data visualization tools out there that are worth checking out.

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