Telling a story with data

13 Nov 20

The idea that numbers tell a story is fundamental to using data effectively. Finance professionals need to think about the story behind the numbers and ask: what is it that the numbers are trying to tell us?

Key takeaways:

  • Public sector professionals rarely think of their roles exclusively in terms of numbers
  • Analysing the data is crucial in revealing the story that the numbers have to tell
  • The interesting numbers in a set of data will be key to telling its story
  • A story told with numbers should have the same features as a story told with words


Why is telling a story with the numbers important?

In almost all circumstances, the experts that public finance managers are communicating with, such as health care managers, housing specialists and welfare providers, do not think of their work in terms of numbers.

Instead, they think about patients getting better, families being housed and individuals receiving the support that they need. Therefore, if we want a dataset to successfully communicate essential information and deliver results, we first need to figure out the story behind the numbers.


What is the secret behind getting the numbers to reveal their story?

Often your data will be shy and reluctant to tell its story. You need to take the time to analyse your data, sort it into order and arrange it into groups – positive, negative and intervals.

The more you engage with the numbers, the likelier they will be to tell you their story.


What features of a dataset have an important part to play in its story?

One way of thinking about this is to imagine the collection of numbers as a forest, abundant with unremarkable features – grass, dead leaves, patches of muddy ground. But within that forest there are particular features that inspire thought and curiosity. A fallen branch, for example – why did it fall? Are there lifeforms in it, creating an environment for new life to come into existence?

In our numbers we need to find the interesting ones; the numbers that have a story to tell. What those interesting numbers are will depend on the characteristics of that particular dataset. They could be unusual items, such as negative numbers in a sea of positive ones, incredibly large numbers in a field of more modest ones, or outliers – numbers that stand out from the others because they lie so far away from them.


Once you’ve discovered the story, how should you tell it?

Having found the story, tell it as you would any story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Good stories have heroes and villains; which numbers are the heroes and villains of your story?

Most of our favourite stories have a happy ending. How can you present the numbers in a way that leaves us with cause for hope – a reason to believe that we can solve the problem they are presenting us with? In short, how can you help the numbers to tell their unique story in full?


Questions for you

  • Take a look at the most recent set of data you collected – what is its story?
  • Excluding those mentioned above, what other features could you find in a dataset that would be key to completing its story?


Further Information

Doing Data Differently – an article from Public Finance.

How to Tell a Story with Data – an article from Harvard Business Review

CIPFA Diploma in Finance Skills for Public Sector Managers – a course that aims to give budget and cost centre managers working in non-finance roles the knowledge and skills they need to effectively manage their area's finances.

  • Gordon Ferrier

    Director of Collective Cognition, a consultancy specialising in strengthening capacity in public sector organisations, and a former assistant director of CIPFA

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