A story is worth a thousand visuals

In my previous article (Colouring with numbers – Can data present a better picture?), I outlined some principles that I have found to be useful when creating data visualisations. I also promised to take you through each of the principles I had outlined in more depth to hopefully help explain the concepts over the next few weeks.

The first principle I will cover is that of storyboarding.

Any report can contain information. It’s relatively easy to just place random visualisations together to display information from a multitude of data sources. But without context or structure does this add any value or provide a better experience for the report reader?

Our job as report writers is to try and make it as easy as possible for the reader to consume the information and then apply this to make interpretive decisions. If we fail to carefully curate the requirements of a report, poor or even wrong inferences can be drawn from the information that is presented even though the data underpinning the report may be correct.

As discussed previously less and less time is being spent by people on in-depth reading as information moves to screen based technology. Facts and understanding needs to be imparted as quickly as possible to the reader otherwise they won’t spend the time to synthesise the information.

Ironically, you may be even doing it now as you read through this blog and just try to assess the highlights and quickly evaluate if it’s worth your time to spend on reading it.

So how do we ensure we craft something that will meet the challenges of engagement and understanding with the report reader?

By following a methodology called storyboarding.

Storyboarding was originally created in the movie industry to help plan the camera work and ensure continuity of the story. It allowed them to shoot various scenes out of order and then splice them back together to make a coherent story. This concept is similar to what we need to do when creating reports. We take themes or topics and visually place them in a contextually relevant order that will lead the report reader through the information presented to them.

So how do we start this process?

  1. Gather requirements – By writing out the concepts required within the report, (my personal preference is to use Post-It® notes for this) one requirement to a page. I’d also recommend leaving room for sketching ideas of potential visualisations or presentations above each topic.
  1. Create themes – Once you have each of the requirements, identify themes that are contextually relevant to the report.


  1. Sequence – Order the themes and requirements together. Add, move or remove requirements and themes as required to create the “story” for the report. Think about how the construct and flow of the story is to go and how report readers may traverse the information within the report.

Linear Story Sequence


Problem Analysis


Comparative Analysis                                             Cause and Effect


Finally, once your storyboard is complete. Read through it and ensure that it meets the requirements of the three key areas;

  • Audience – who is this information intended for?
  • Function – what is the purpose of this report?
  • Presentation – how is the report to be displayed?

Once you are satisfied with the storyboard you should now be ready to start identifying the visualisations that will best present the information which I will be covering in my next article.



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