How to build a well-structured story from a clear Big Idea and a selection of materials listed in a preliminary storyboard.

So far, we have learned to make uncluttered graphics, without excessive information, to serve as an argument and guide our audience to see and retain the essence of a visual. Just to refresh our memory, here is an example of an effective chart, and how to turn a 3D Pie Chart into a Storytelling Bar Chart with Icons. And yet, another example: let’s watch how to bring a bullet points to life with very simple tricks!

Let’s recall also that the Big Idea concept help us in defining what is essential, which message do we want to deliver to whom, and storyboarding allow us to select the content, which data, which graph, in which order.

In this lesson, we will use these materials to build our story.

Learning outcomes :
- To analyze why we enjoy and retain a story
- To apply these principles to captivate your audience in a sustainable way
- To build a three-act story

Red Riding Hood: the magic of story

Well-known stories, such as the Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs, are the best examples of stories that we have retained.

We keep them in memory because:

  • they have touched us, even if it was a long time ago ;-))
  • they share an effective three-act structure: the beginning, the middle, and the end
  • the narrative flow makes sense: beginning with a safe situation, a Good Little Girl obeying her mum and supporting her sickly grandma, her ride in the dangerous forest, a more and more threatening Big Bad Wolf, cruelty, an happy end, etc.
  • they use repetitions: “What a deep voice you have!” (“The better to greet you with”, responds the wolf), “Goodness, what big eyes you have!” (“The better to see you with”, responds the wolf), “And what big hands you have!” (“The better to hug/grab you with”, responds the wolf), and lastly, “What a big mouth you have” (“The better to eat you with!”, responds the wolf), at which point the wolf jumps out of bed and eats her. (See Wikipedia for the repetitive questions/answers in the Red Riding Hood!)

In good stories, the ones we enjoy and remember, we always find the same narrative arc, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The narrative arc
Figure 1: The narrative arc

Recommended video The Little Red Riding Hood story: A 2 mins video, by The British Council and their English learning resources for kids. To refresh your memory, or discover this European folk fairy tale about a young girl and a sly wolf. The two best known versions were written by Charles Perrault (French) and the Brothers Grimm (German).

Recommended reading Chapter seven from the book "Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals", by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic (Editor: John Wiley & Sons, Nov 18, 2015)

Recommended video Storytelling with Data, by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Talks at Google, 2015. To focus on the Tell a story part, watch from 17:04 to 26:22.

Touch your audience

Involve your audience! Present the context and the problem that concerns them, provide an analysis of the data they will understand and conclude with a clear call for action, inviting them to make the necessary decisions based on your arguments.

Recommended video Bringing Data to Life: Emotions and Data Storytelling. From Coursera, Creating Dashboards and Storytelling with Tableau, by University of California, Davis. Here, you will find recommendations about how to use Storypoints to create a powerful story to leave a lasting impression with your audience, but also how to structure and organize your story for maximum impact.

Choose a narrative flow that makes sense

Choose the order of your story in order to get your audience pay attention. When we get their attention, we are in a better position to motivate them to act!

Follow a narrative arc with an increasing tension. Think about what tension exists for your audience. This relates back to one of the components of the Big Idea that we discussed: what is at stake? When we’ve effectively identified the tension in a situation, then the action we want our audience to take becomes how they can resolve the tension in the data story.

Here are 2 ways to engage your audience in your story. A chronological way is suitable for data scientists like us, but when you deal with decision-makers, the call to action-based one is probably more efficient (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Narrative flow
Figure 2: Narrative flow

Use repetitions

Repeat your big idea (or your solution, or more generally your message) in the introduction and in the main content and in the conclusion, as shown in the Figure 3.

Figure 3: Repetition
Figure 3: Repetition

The three-act structure in detail

In his book, Beyond Bullet Point, Cliff Atkinson proposes a three-act structure for stories.

  • Act I - The compelling setup, or how to introduce your Big Idea in 5 slides
    • The setting creates the context, should clearly define the business environment you find yourself in.
    • The protagonist, naturally, should point to your audience. Why is your audience concerned?
    • Establish the imbalance that your protagonist encounters in the setting. It is the initial situation, the departure point A. What problem is your audience experiencing? What incident is weighing them down? You may outline an existing dilemma that your business aims to solve.
    • Establish a sense of balance. What’s the ideal situation that your audience should aspire for, the point B where they want to go? How good should the state of affairs be for them to achieve a sense of fulfillment?
    • The solution. The fifth and last slide of the “introduction” should contain your proposal to the audience. What can you do to alleviate their discomfort? How can your business help in addressing their concerns?
  • Act II - The solution, the 3 three main supported points
    • Anchor #1, unlock the problem
    • Anchor #2, introduce a second clue
    • Anchor #3, introduce a third argument
  • End - The thrilling conclusion
    • The call to action. Recap the problem (repetition to shift your proposal from short memory to long term memory) and the resulting need for action.

This structure is available in different variants. In the field of entrepreneurship and innovation, for example, the introduction should start with a hook describing the context of a situation that end-users encounter. Then, entrepreneurs show the relevance of their product/idea by defining their target users and quantifying the market. Third, they show the challenge, i.e. which situation/problem is not currently solved, and what would be the ideal situation. And finally, they announce that their product/idea is THE solution. If they have time, they can develop their value proprosition by presenting their solution in more detail. And finally, whatever time they have, it takes them 30 seconds to close and launch their call to action (usually the needed financial support in €).

Recommended video Cliff Atkinson presents his templates to construct a three-act story. This video is a little bit long, 47:52 min, but we still recommend it to you.

Recommended reading "Beyond Bullet Points: Using PowerPoint to tell a compelling story that gets results (4th Edition)", by Cliff Atkinson (Editor: Microsoft Press, Apr 4, 2018)

Recommended tool The storyboard sketching pad to begin with the storytelling and reformulate the Big Idea in a problem-solution way.

Recommended tool The story template (word file) to develop the whole story with arguments and define the visuals to reinforce your Big Idea.