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Category: Data Storytelling

Top 5 Data Storytelling Trends for 2021

January 22, 2021

As organizations collect more and more data, the need for meaningful insights continues to rise. Most executives would agree they’re drowning in data but still thirsty for insights. In many cases, when insights are found, they end up being overlooked, misunderstood, or dismissed due to poor communication. A solution to this challenge is data storytelling, which is a more effective method for communicating insights in a compelling manner by combining narrative with visuals.

brent dykes data storytelling bookEffective Data Storytelling

At the beginning of 2020, I published my book, Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals (Wiley). As the year unfolded like nobody could have predicted, we saw data play an increased role in both our business and personal lives. With more business data at our fingertips than ever before, we closely monitored our reports and dashboards as our organizations tried to navigate difficult, uncharted waters. Then, outside of work, we were simultaneously bombarded by a steady stream of health, economic, and political numbers that were visualized by the news media in various ways. In some cases, the signals in the data were clear and strong, but far too often the insights — if there were any — were adrift in a sea of noise.

Top 5 Data Storytelling Trends for 2021

As we welcome in a new year in which mining valuable insights from your data will continue to grow in importance, we can anticipate a greater emphasis on data storytelling. When more companies are able to clearly communicate insights and drive action from their data, they’ll see a higher return from their analytics investments. As you prepare for the new year, I’d like to highlight some of the top data storytelling trends in 2021:

1. A Shift Away from Dashboards to Data Storiesdashboard data visualization on a computer screen

Recently, Gartner predicted the “decline of the dashboard” as organizations switch to dynamic data stories over predefined dashboards. While we’ll see a reduced role for dashboards as a trend in data storytelling, I don’t see dashboards disappearing. They’ll continue to play an essential role in disseminating information and helping companies to monitor performance. While dashboards are more exploratory in nature and helpful for identifying potential insights, they aren’t as effective at communicating or explaining insights. Data stories will be used increasingly to fill this explanatory need that dashboards weren’t designed to meet.

2. An Increased Focus on Automated Data Storytelling

Another trend in data storytelling is that technology vendors will continue to be focused on automating the task of generating data narratives within organizations. Using artificial intelligence such as Natural Language Generation (NLG), their goal is to turn the vast amounts of data that most organizations have into more useful and approachable information for business users. However, while these technology efforts can enhance reports and dashboards, it’ll be some time before this technology can fully replace human data storytellers who are able to make complex connections and add deeper meaning to the numbers. What people really need is technology that augments — not replaces — their ability to quickly identify insights, build meaningful data stories, and effectively communicate with others.

What people really need is technology that augments — not replaces — their ability to quickly identify insights, build meaningful data stories, and effectively communicate with others.

3. A Deeper Appreciation For the Power of Narrative

In order for data storytelling to truly grow and develop as a distinct discipline and valued skill set, it must move beyond just being treated as a synonym for data visualization. Up to now, there’s been a continual focus on the visual aspects, and the narrative aspects of data storytelling have been largely misunderstood, neglected, or ignored. Slowly, a trend in data storytelling is that people are beginning to realize much of its power actually comes from the narrative and not just the visuals. When an insight is combined with a narrative, it can engage, connect, and align people to take action. In a webinar poll I conducted last year, 67% of 101 respondents admitted narrative was the hardest aspect of data storytelling (visuals 22%, data 11%). Being long overdue, the narrative side of data storytelling will increase in importance and receive more attention going forward.

67% of 101 respondents admitted narrative was the hardest aspect of data storytelling (visuals 22%, data 11%).

4. A Greater Need For Data Storytelling Training

people engaged in data storytelling training

A recent survey by Qlik found that only 24% of more than 7,300 business decision makers considered themselves to be data literate. For the last few years, companies have been focused on closing this data literacy gap. Data storytelling has traditionally been treated as a small module within these training efforts. However, data-savvy organizations are beginning to invest specifically in data storytelling training to advance their people’s ability to communicate insights effectively. By adding more skilled data storytellers, these firms will enhance their data literacy levels and data cultures as data stories begin to flow more freely. In addition to this data storytelling trend, more academic institutions will add data storytelling courses to complement their current data visualization classes.

24% of more than 7,300 business decision makers considered themselves to be data literate.

5. An Expanded Use of Branded Data Stories

Today, one of a company’s greatest digital assets is its wealth of business data. Rather than limiting this resource to just internal use cases, organizations will increasingly look to share their data externally to build thought leadership, engage partners, and strengthen customer relationships. For example, each year Spotify has shared its Wrapped summary of individual user’s music preferences, which has helped the streaming music service form a deeper connection with its end users. Branded data stories represent a new frontier for data storytelling as organizations build brand equity by sharing insights from their own data assets.

Achieve Data Storytelling Success in 2021

data storytelling consultants in a meeting

After the chaos of 2020, it’s hard to know what this year will actually look like. Despite the uncertainty that a global pandemic has introduced, it’s safe to say data storytelling is only going to grow in use and importance. As an advocate of its power and influence, I look forward to helping others reach greater heights with this skill set and discipline. I’m confident that data storytellers and organizations that embrace the power of these data storytelling trends will have a significant impact in 2021 and beyond.

Brent Dykes
About the Author

Brent Dykes is the Senior Director of Insights and Data Storytelling at Blast Analytics. He is also the author of Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals. Brent has more than 15 years of enterprise analytics experience at Omniture, Adobe, and Domo. His passion for data strategy and data storytelling comes from consulting with many industry leaders including Nike, Microsoft, Sony, and Comcast. He is a regular Forbes contributor and has written more than 35 articles on different data-related topics. In 2016, Brent received the Most Influential Industry Contributor Award from the Digital Analytics Association (DAA). He is a popular speaker at conferences such as Strata, Web Summit, Shop.org, Adtech, Pubcon, RISE, Crunch, and Adobe Summit. Brent holds an MBA from Brigham Young University and a BBA in marketing from Simon Fraser University.

Connect with Brent on LinkedIn. Brent Dykes has written on the Blast Digital Customer Experience and Analytics Blog.

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