Establish the narrative and flow for a data story

Business Benefits

Develop a logical and compelling flow for a data story to ensure your audience will find it engaging, memorable, and actionable.


Establish the audience and action for the data story by filling in the blanks in the statement “After this presentation, [name(s)] should [action].”

The [name(s)] is your primary audience. They should be at the forefront of your mind as you craft and evaluate the narrative.

The [action] is the goal for your data story: to craft a narrative that will compel your primary audience to act.

If the action feels weak, then you may not have a data story. For example, “After this presentation, the marketing manager should be informed about the performance of the campaign.”

Challenge yourself to identify true actionability for the information you are presenting.

Write down what conclusion the primary audience will need to have reached that will compel them to take that action.

This is the end of your data story. It is important to establish where the narrative is expected to lead before attempting to craft its beginning and middle.

Do not worry about capturing how or why the audience should reach the conclusion. Just identify the conclusion itself. For example, “I need to consider scaling back our investment in display advertising,” “I need to authorize increased testing of the mobile checkout experience on our site.”

Make a list of the most important information your audience will need to draw a conclusion.

These should be discrete and concise pieces of information, like declining performance for a specific segment; the current level of investment in some area; or voice of customer feedback regarding a specific part of the user experience.

Do not worry about organizing the topics (yet). Focus on the conclusion and only include topics that either directly support that conclusion or support another topic or piece of information that, itself, directly supports the conclusion.

Create a storyboard using sticky notes or a sketchpad to organize the topics and ideas in the narrative.

Avoid presentation platforms such as Google Slides, PowerPoint, Keynote. They will draw you into thinking in terms of “the deck” rather than “the story.”

Sticky notes or a sketchpad are good options for storyboarding. They force you to focus on the idea rather than “the slide,” and allow for the quick development (and discarding, in some cases) of specific ideas.

Consider working from the backwards: from the conclusion. This will slow you down and ensure that you are building directly towards an impactful ending. Ensure that there is a logical connection from one idea or point to the next.

Review your storyboard and break the data story into three sequential parts: beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning should set the stage for your primary audience. It should be as brief as possible, but also needs to provide sufficient background and answer the following:

  • Why does this story matter, and why should they pay attention to it?
  • Does it impact a particular area of the business?
  • Is a competitive advantage being lost due to an external factor?
  • Are there implications for the marketing budget that you will be demonstrating?

The middle should include the information that the audience needs to reach the conclusion that you identified earlier, and that is all. Watch out for:

  • Superfluous information about how the analysis was conducted - the audience generally does not care.
  • Interesting findings that were surprising, but not directly related to the intended conclusion.

The End. These are the key takeaways - pointing to the conclusion and the next steps (actions) that should ensue.

If there are not a clearly apparent beginning, middle, and end, then continue to refine the storyboard.

Write the topics and ideas out as a series of single, clear, concise statements.

Ultimately, these can be the basis of the titles for each of your slides.

Run through the statements in order and ask yourself - is it a logical and compelling story?

There is no formula for determining if a sequence of statement is logical and compelling - it relies on your judgment - but read through the statements and do the following:

  • Read them out loud. This will help you hear them as your audience will.
  • Think about your primary audience. They are the target for the data story (not you).
  • Ask yourself if the sequence of statements alone are coherent and compelling.

Refine the statements and adjust the storyboard until you can complete this step that you have developed an effective narrative. Once you have, you can proceed to actually turning the narrative into a slide deck.