Chapter 29. Telling a Story and Making a Point

Most data visualization is done for the purpose of communication. We have an insight about a dataset, and we have a potential audience, and we would like to convey our insight to our audience. To communicate our insight successfully, we will have to present the audience with a meaningful and exciting story. The need for a story may seem disturbing to scientists and engineers, who may equate it with making things up, putting a spin on things, or overselling results. However, this perspective misses the important role that stories play in reasoning and memory. We get excited when we hear a good story, and we get bored when the story is bad or when there is none. Moreover, any communication creates a story in the audience’s minds. If we don’t provide a clear story ourselves, then our audience will make one up. In the best-case scenario, the story they make up is reasonably close to our own view of the material presented. However, it can be and often is much worse. The made-up story could be “this is boring,” “the author is wrong,” or “the author is incompetent.”

Your goal in telling a story should be to use facts and logical reasoning to get your audience interested and excited. Let me tell you a story about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at age 21—one year into his PhD—and was given two years to live. Hawking did not accept this predicament and started pouring all his energy into ...

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