How to Inspire Action through Storytelling with Data

This week marked the 2020 ATD Data & Analytics Summit, focused on the strategic use of data and analytics to dismantle barriers and biases, that often inadvertently promote inequities. The sixth annual event brought hundreds of higher education leaders and national experts together virtually for general sessions including how to use data to affect change, an innovation showcase, a track for tribal colleges and universities, networking opportunities, and pre-summit workshops.

One pre-conference workshop – How to Tell a Story with Data led by ATD’s Holistic Students Support Coach Jennifer Hill-Kelley and ATD’s Director of Research Dr. Elayne Reiss – took participants through a guided exercise to better understand how storytelling from data can inspire colleges to better understand campus trends and lead to actions to improve equity and student success.

As ATD President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout said in her opening plenary remarks how data are used to tell stories is key to driving student success work: “Understanding how data and storytelling go hand in hand is very important … There are stories around every data point.”

Effective use of data storytelling can help colleges communicate critical needs and make the case for resources or other calls to action to a wide variety of target audiences – boards, policymakers, the local community, parents, students, prospective students, and more.

In the storytelling workshop, Hill-Kelley defined the five critical elements to use as a framework for any story: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Asking key questions around each element can help identify what data points are needed or what problem the story is trying to solve for:

  • “What’s the heart of the story you’re trying to tell?”

  • “Which students are you interested in capturing and what are their experiences?”

  • “What is the challenge for the issue that you want this story to address?”

Students should be at the center of data storytelling.

Students should be at the center of data storytelling, she said: “Every data point is a student story.”

Compelling headlines are essential; and they should be easy to understand and help the target audience recall its meaning as the key takeaway of the story.

Dr. Reiss stressed the importance of telling the story first, and then designing the data presentation. Design should be simple and understandable, let target audiences visualize the big picture, as well as see and compare patterns. Text with graphics is limited, so what is used must be succinct and on message. Overall arrangements, color schemes, and lines should contribute and not distract from the story itself.

Workshop participants were divided into groups for a breakout activity and given three imagined data sets to explore and plan for a story, including fall to fall retention rates, first-year Gateway math completion, and students earning zero credits in the first semester. The activity prompts for the first session were to explore the data for what stood out, what insights might be discoverable, and to start considering potential storytelling paths.

Workshop participants next considered how they could use the data they selected to tell a story, designed a graph to highlight what they considered to be the most compelling finding, and shared back to the everyone in the workshop. Interestingly, even though each group used the same data sets, they each created unique mock-up graphics telling a variety of stories – highlighting how even limited data points can bring multiple stories to life.

Resources to help tell stories with data include:


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