Why Data Storytelling Often Misses the Mark

by Rob Merrilees, Co-Founder of Get Real

How many times have we sat through a presentation of charts and graphs with our eyes glazed over after just a few short minutes?  Are multi-slide decks of reprinted spreadsheets and tables immediately reduced to paperweights on the corner of your desk, or even worse, filed in the corner recycling bin?  Businesses today have never been more proficient at collecting data to gain insight about customers, products, and competitors.  Companies fall over themselves to claim that data drives every decision they make.  If that is true, then why do so many businesses fail when it comes to using this precious data to present the story they want audiences to hear?  The answer lies in the tools that we typically use to present data, and the way we engage audiences to collaborate.  Fortunately, some recent advances in technology are poised to fundamentally change our ability to use data to present the meaningful stories our businesses need to tell.

Generally, there are three main reasons we use data when presenting to an audience.  First, we are trying to use data to persuade the audience into adopting our particular point of view.  Second, we are trying to inform the audience by condensing key information into easy to decipher charts and graphs.  It’s the classic example of letting a picture tell the story of a thousand words.  Lastly, we are trying to engage the audience in collective insight.  Sometimes it’s not about the story we want to tell.  We come to the presentation without having everything figured out – with the goal of setting the stage for collaboration, comment, and discernment.  As presenters, teeing up the questions that benefit from different perspectives, answers and insight may be the most valuable goal we can accomplish.

Libraries of books have been written and an entire industry of software tools, classes, and experts has sprung up in recent years to help businesses make the most compelling data presentation possible. Tools such as PowerPoint®, Microsoft Excel, Tableau, and countless others are all commonly used to present dashboards and infographics ready to be consumed by audiences of all types.  But why do they fail so often in conveying the message to their intended audience?

One of the leading thought leaders on data visualization is Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.  In his article, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” he raises several concerns with the traditional presentation we are used to seeing in PowerPoint® that I think can be extended across many common two-dimensional displays of data.

PowerPoint® is presenter-oriented, not audience oriented.  To paraphrase, Tufte says “that while PowerPoint may be convenient for the speaker, it isn’t the most conducive to collaborative exchange.  It helps speakers outline talks, retrieve and show diverse visual materials and communicate slides in talks and printed reports.”  Tufte flags “breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments,” and “rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis” as being “costly to both content and audience.”  What is good for organizing a disorganized speaker, is not good for fostering thought and connection with the material by the audience.

Bullet outlines dilute thought.  Tufte goes on to contend that since the amount of information that one can put into any one PowerPoint® slide is actually fairly limited, presenters often oversimplify their conclusions and convey information without all the necessary caveats and nuance that are required.  Drawing on Tufte’s thoughts, I think two harms can then result. Not only might audience members conclude that such summary determinations, so-called “bullet points,” are more established as describing reality than is appropriate (which can lead to the hazards of flawed subsequent decision making by itself), so too might the necessary opportunity to explore the open questions collaboratively with one another, both together and with the speaker be missed entirely.

If PowerPoint® and other two-dimensional presentations are suboptimal, what would be the preferred solution?  We would want the entirety of a story presented with data, allowing the audience to take in all the information and for each to process that in his or her own way. Data could still be presented in narrative form, layering subsequent data points onto those already presented. While this may be problematic in PowerPoint®, given the constraints Tufte identifies, it is relatively straightforward to do in an immersive, three-dimensional space, like that which Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality allows for.

Let's compare the experience of data storytelling in VR to a traditional two-dimensional slide presentation by using the metaphor of “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” A picture can be a good example of a two-dimensional representation of a tree in a forest.  A broader presentation could include a picture looking up towards the sky focusing on the tree top, perhaps another could be focused downward towards the ground to show the trunk and leaves on the forest floor.  A third could be focused outward, highlighting neighboring trees in the immediate vicinity of the first.  While these pictures may be an effective example of a single tree and its adjacent surroundings, one actually has to escape the confines of the trees to have an appreciation of the forest: its size, its height, its breadth, its canopy, and so on.

Importantly, the “tree” view without the “forest” view leaves one’s understanding incomplete. But even when we combine the two views note that the audience is left with a story that is still wildly incomplete.  If possible, what would be preferred would be having the audience members go into the forest as a group, explore and see firsthand the various trees, listen to the sounds and go off individually as their own curiosity takes hold.  The audience members could offer their own observations, feed off of one another’s comments, talk one on one or in a group about all that they were experiencing, both inside and outside of the forest. Gathering such a group to go on a “forest field trip” may however be time prohibitive and usually impossible in the real world unless the group members all lived close to the forest and had a significant chunk of time to devote to such an endeavor.

But using Virtual Reality to tour the forest, however, would make it possible to achieve nearly all of the benefits of the forest field trip and would  be both cost-effective and efficient. If a forest were rendered in 3D space, people from all over an organization and around the world could go explore those trees from every angle – close-up, far away, above, from the side – and recognize that those trees weren’t solely trees, but together were also a part of a forest. And they could do it together and at the same time, working collaboratively, regardless of physical location.

What does any of this forest/trees story have to do with Virtual Reality and data storytelling? Quite a bit actually. Virtual Reality allows one to transport oneself into the figurative forests, that is, the fields of data – regardless of whether they are raw or refined, not only readily but with others. Not only can one immerse oneself into a three-dimensional view of the data, but one can also do it from multiple vantage points and distances. One can walk through a time-line of important events year by year, or one can see entire centuries from afar. One can see how a rate of incidence or a series of averages or medians or really anything at all changes as a function of time or income or whatever input variable,, all while seeing the impacted numbers change before your very eyes.

The ability to do this exploration with others concurrently and collaboratively is what is so compelling about using Virtual Reality for data visualization.  One platform that allows such collaboration with data storytelling is Flow Immersive.   As a presenter, I can now craft a story which highlights layers of data in three-dimensional space.  As the story builds, the data doesn’t have to be whisked away like a slide in a PowerPoint® presentation. Rather, the information can stay visible, as the entirety of the story takes shape. Participants and presenters don’t need to interrupt the momentum of the presentation to turn the page or slide back to find something that was presented previously. Further, the spatial aspect of the presentation makes it easier for the audience to process and ultimately to remember.

Moreover, the audience experiences the data as a group alongside each other, with the ability to hear and react to one another.  The stage is set for additional insights to be gained and for new questions to be posed. It takes the burden off presenters to have everything figured out and can lessen the concern of creating false impressions or premature conclusions by over-simplifying.

Critically, such a data story can be told in Virtual Reality using Flow Immersive to promote the discovery of additional insights, and different ways to consider the data. Participants aren’t just sitting in chairs or on a Zoom call passively. They have agency. They can move about amongst the data points themselves. It’s been more than a decade since Google’s Chief Economist Dr. Hal R.Varian said, "The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.”

Clearly Varian was prescient in his comments from 2009. Because of the advances in VR technology and companies like Flow Immersive who are taking advantage of these breakthroughs, the skill sets that Varian was identifying as so vital can actually be developed not just by individuals, but by entire work teams. The innovation and insights that will result will be immense.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use data visualization software in Virtual Reality to tell the stories of your business, Get Real can help.  Contact us at info@getrealxr.com

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While early efforts in VR focused on gaming, in recent years business and enterprise have begun to compete for center stage. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting decrease in business travel have intensified the felt need for people to connect with their colleagues and their clients. While the immediate reaction was to turn to Zoom and other video-conferencing technologies to help address that need, many are finding it exhausting, distracting, and ultimately nowhere near as productive as meeting in person.

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