B.J. Novak, also known as Ryan from The Office, recently published a children’s story, The Book with No Pictures. And if you haven’t read it already, I urge you to do so. View this short clip to get an idea:
The book easily defeats the notion that pictures are integral to children’s stories – that in order to entice the audience, prove a point or communicate an idea, a visual is absolutely necessary.
The result? A concise, funny and even powerful approach to storytelling. Novak explains, “There’s a really exciting way to show kids that the written word can be their ally and that it’s possible to do something extremely powerful… using only words.”
Fast forward to the business world where, like the children’s world, the default explanation tends to be in the form of visualization – the pie chart to signify share, the line graph for growth, the scatterplot for comparison, and on and on. Of course, these visualizations can and do aid in the understanding of key concepts.
Better than a spreadsheet or chart, visualizations can uncover patterns or anomalies not immediately recognized before. However, they still require interpretation. They require an explanation of what is really happening and why. They require a narrative.
Take Anscombe’s Quartet: the go-to demonstration for the dangers of taking data at face value. This group of four datasets appears to be similar at first glance, even when performing standard summary statistics (for example, the average x value for each dataset is 9, average y value is 7.5).
However when these 4 data sets are mapped into visualizations, we realize they are not similar at all. We see relationships that are not obvious from staring at the table, and we are left with many unanswered questions.
What are those relationships? Why are there anomalies in the bottom two images? What is the context behind these data points? Without a narrative, we don’t have this crucial information. And, without this crucial information, we are prohibited from taking action.
Narrative Science does what data visualization cannot: our technology platform, Quill, adds real value to data by identifying relevant data points and relaying them through professional, conversational language. Quill understands what is important to the end user and then automatically generates perfectly written narratives to convey meaning from the data that a user can act on.
Visualizations can give us insights that are not immediately obvious from a chart or table. But the next step, the crucial step of understanding, requires a narrative.
The lesson learned? In powerful storytelling, pictures may be nice, but they are not always necessary.