Book Review: Storytelling with Data

Cover image of the book "Storytelling with Data"

One of the data areas that I’m currently interested in is data visualization, which has resulted in a pile of data viz books in my to-read list. I’ve been working my way through Show Me the Numbers, which may be a future book review, but got interrupted when the ebook for Storytelling With Data came available at the public library. It was a quick and enjoyable read and worth sharing with you!

Storytelling with Data is a useful overview on the best ways to use data to support whatever argument you’re making. In one sense it’s a data visualization book, but it also takes a larger view of how your data visualizations support the story you’re telling. Nussbaumer Knaflic does this through 6 lessons:

  1. Understand the context
  2. Choose an appropriate visual display
  3. Eliminate clutter
  4. Focus attention where you want it
  5. Think like a designer
  6. Tell a story

You can see from the lessons (chapters) that, while visualization practices make up the core of the book, everything is bookended by putting visualizations into the larger context of the message you are trying to convey.

What I like about this book is that it’s an accessible way to orient yourself to a number of design principles. It provides a framework for rethinking how you approach visualization and sets you on a path toward engaging with visuals in a new way. The storytelling aspect of the book is particularly helpful, and Nussbaumer Knaflic cites guides to effective presentations to underscore her points.

The downside of the book’s accessibility is that I found myself wishing to engage with a number of the ideas presented in the book at a deeper level. Nussbaumer Knaflic gives some advice on how to chose the proper graph format, but I found Stephanie Evergreen’s Effective Data Visualization (my review here) to be much more helpful here. Similarly, Storytelling with Data summarizes cognitive load and the Gestalt principles of visualization, but Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers goes into these in more depth to the point where I feel that Few allows me to actually apply these concepts to my visualizations.

In summary, I would definitely share Storytelling with Data to someone looking to get started with improving their data visualizations as it provides a good foundation to the topic. More experienced visualizers may also find useful information in the book’s pages.