Have a handle on your dataElements to your story telling

The author Stephen King in his part-autobiographical-part-instructional work On Writing suggests that his stories come in two parts – cups and handles. The cups appear all the time. These are the everyday incidents, events or fragments of conversation that can be the basis for a story. The handles are more elusive. These are the elements that elevate a story from something mundane into something far more interesting.

Several years ago I wanted to write a short piece about a man under pressure at work. An everyday guy called Henry Spiller working late in an office trying to hit a deadline. This was my cup. As an idea it has a few things going for it – it’s a situation many can relate to and an office requires a lot less scene setting than say, an electro-juice bar on the Planet Zuurg – but to be honest it’s pretty mundane and so it got filed away in a gloomy corner of my brain.

Diamonds out of peanut butter

Several months later, I heard a radio interview with a scientist who had just made a diamond out of peanut butter.

That was my handle.

Or, more specifically, his statement that “with enough time and pressure you can turn anything into a diamond” made me think about my poor office guy. What would happen to him with so much weight bearing down…?

Before the murmurings of “That’s great, but what’s it got to do with me and my data?” get any louder, let me explain.

Data is all around us. All the time.

As professionals within the realms of data, analytics or this week’s BI buzzword of your choice, we deal with data constantly. This means we get a lot of cups thrown at us on a daily basis – most of which I’m glad to report aren’t made of china or filled with a scalding liquid.

I’d really like to see my sales data for the last twelve months

We’ve all seen and handled that kind of question or a derivative thereof. It’s a well-worn story that typically receives a well-worn line-graph-shaped response.

12 month sales data in line graph

A timeless and classic tale of a Christmas boom, a winter slump and a slow steady recovery. Perfect for a report that gets glanced at and ignored or, worse still, gets pasted into PowerPoint and saved to a repository somewhere that visualisations go to die.

But what if we channel our inner Edward Tufte and ask, “Compared to what?”

“Compared to target?”


“Compared to my main rival?”

Getting better insights from your data

“Compared to a whole lot of other things I might be interested in?”

A simple data question can start journeys that yield surprising results.

Even the simplest tale can have unexpected outcome much like the simplest data question can start journeys that yield surprising results. With the right context (and with enough time and pressure) your data stories can become best sellers.

The rather wise and aforementioned author (not me, the other bloke) devotes a whole section of On Writing to the concept of the writer’s toolbox. As data professionals we swap grammar for good design and vocabulary for visuals but having a solid toolbox of tried and tested visuals along with a few funky new gadgets is essential, so be sure to stock yours wisely.

I’ll leave you with a final thought from Stephen King who states that you should not be afraid to kill your darlings. Bear this in mind the next time you see a beveled pie chart…

Your data has a story to tell. Let us help you get a handle on what it wants to say.

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This post was written by Nik Eveleigh, Principal BI Consultant, Synergy.

Other articles in this series:
Making Healthy Data Choices – published September 2018