School-based data analysis can help us better understand and serve our students and school communities. Data storytelling, a strategy that nests data in thoughtful visuals that form a narrative, can help foster that understanding and commitment; done right, data storytelling can convey details while still reflecting an educational organization’s mission, vision, and goals.
While data storytelling has many elements of statistics in it, it can document the journey toward school-based goals—and make viewers’ understanding of successes and challenges more astute. As a visual and narrative art, data storytelling can transform predictable presentations from purely visual and auditory into ones that cultivate feeling—and that’s just what many school districts, schools, departments, grade levels, and classrooms need in order to be dynamic and move forward with smart communication management and policy.
I’ve seen it again and again: Sophisticated data storytelling can efficiently deliver tipping-point information that leads to consensus building and sound decision-making.
Consider Your Audience
Before you begin constructing your narrative, think about your audience so that from the get-go, connection with it is at the forefront. Is the audience faculty? All staff? The school board? Parents and caregivers? Students?
In addition to considering who is in the audience, think about where both the audience and the community are in space and time: What is the vibe? What’s top-of-mind? What demands diplomacy?
Take into account where the audience will be physically so that you can make your data accessible. Will anyone with a screen be able to access the information? What’s their optimal interaction with it? Will the data story be distributed as a PDF, or will you walk the audience through the presentation in real time—or both?
Consider as well the particulars of the channels you’ll use to deliver your narrative. Where you will deliver the data drops matters, whether that’s social media, school communication boards, or team meetings, so plan how you will make the most of each channel. For example, identify needs for teaser copy for social media that will make the story intriguing, or how the accompanying script will unfold in a slide deck.
Also consider barriers: Are there groups that should be at the table but might find it difficult to access your data story? Do you need to tell the story in multiple languages and formats? Should conversation and interaction with data be built into the experience? Will the community outside of the school or district be included?
Keep in mind two things as you think about your audience: inclusivity and interactivity.
Establish Storytelling Goals and Use Telling Details
After you’ve nailed down who your audience is, refine your message—what the heart of the story is for that particular audience. Sit down with your colleagues and sketch out the goals for your story for that audience—the call to action, for example. Do you want your audience to share information, advocate, or arrive at a decision? Clarity on those points will help frame your narrative.
Also consider your narrative arc—the beginning, middle, and end of your story. When I’m creating a narrative with data points and visuals, I often plan the narrative arc with the school year unfolding like a single chapter in a book, with a natural progression reflecting a school year and the traditions it holds, such as the first day of school, caregiver events, celebrations, and end-of-year ceremonies. These moments can create a backdrop to tell a story, and often they can be used in concert with data points that celebrate progress.
Using that framework, also think about where your district’s story originated and where you are headed in the future; think of your data—even data that seems at first blush unrelated—as creating color and detail for that story.
If, for example, your district has a vision of bringing the community together, and you have data that suggests strong ELA proficiency in the district, there might be a connection between the two that you can surface with data storytelling. The proficiency might be the result of collaboration and bringing in stakeholders, and you might have data on that; fold that into your narrative, and you wind up telling a story about bringing the community together.
Remember That Looks Matter
You can always work with a graphic designer on projects like these, but I’ve found it gratifying and fun to learn how to make my data stories aesthetically pleasing so that they draw viewers in. Take time to make yours beautiful. Leaning a bit into branding, think about the district, school, or classroom and its brand mark (the set of images inclusive of district emblem, logo, and colors) and the many ways that it can be viewed in an aesthetically pleasing way across the data visuals.
You might, for example, have a district emblem with two colors. That and any other logo should work on different-colored backgrounds and be able to scale larger or smaller (without having the pixels explode). Ensure that the same color palette, font choices, and overall vibe are consistent. I use Eye Dropper to get exact matches or the hex code for colors. Coolors is a fast and fun color scheme generator that can help refresh your color palette.
After you plan your data storytelling framework with your team, try some user-friendly visualization tools. My favorite is Canva for ease of use and exportability options. Besides having heaps of templates to choose from, Canva has a Learn section, which walks users through how to make the best use of its products.