How can we use design, storytelling, and creativity to make better decisions with data? Emma Cosh opened the discussion at the April CDO Hub event on data visualisation techniques with this question, speaking to our community of senior data leaders.

If you can understand the culture and context behind data, this can enable your team to comprehend both the value – and action potential, through these insights. This process is underpinned by storytelling. Emma shared her experience in the use of data to construct compelling stories, and in turn, help organisations to understand how that data can best be used.

Culture and Context

To understand how data can build a story, consider how we use stories in society. Emma highlighted the difference between Disney’s 1989 version of The Little Mermaid and the original story from 1837, in which (spoiler alert?!) the mermaid is cursed to serve mankind for centuries.

These stories differ because to tell a compelling story it helps to tailor it to your audience and the culture that you are in. In the same manner, it’s fundamental to understand the culture and context of your organisation, and how this can influence engagement with your data.

Take a look at this clip from our recent podcast with Saracens’ Will Fraser – with a contextual appreciation of how the data can help the players, they will be far more likely to engage with the data.

Why are Data Stories Difficult?

Data literacy is a common problem for many leaders, and this affects how your data stories are received. Visualisation can be really beneficial, it gives more of an aesthetic element to communicate with anyone that’s not number-oriented. For Emma, however, the emphasis should be on passion and empathy.

If you encourage your passion to be shown through your data stories – illustrating the potential of these insights, and not just showing the figures – your teams are far more likely to engage with the story. Likewise, if you ensure that your dashboards show empathy about the user of the outcome, they will be far less likely to dismiss or abandon your efforts with data.

Emma suggested four steps to tell a story:

  1. Establish a connection with your audience, based on shared beliefs or ambitions
  2. Interpret your insights using language that your audience can both understand and consider
  3. Design it with aesthetic appeal in mind, based on the norms of the audience
  4. Finish with a conclusion that connects to the audience’s core values

Alternative Facts

The same set of data can tell multiple different stories, depending on how it’s visualised. As such, you might have to deal with alternative facts, construed meanings, and misleading conclusions in your organisation. Transparency is the best solution to this problem; it’s up to the CDO to challenge the norms of how people use data and tell stories.

As a data leader, one of your main responsibilities is to help the organisation understand how to use the data correctly. With the right education on how to use your platforms and technology, and shared agreement of the specific metrics that should be used, the influence of alternative facts can be greatly diminished.

Designing Data

When it comes to your data visualisation techniques, some key processes can make the results more accessible.

Good design is built on:

  • Refining the UX, which comes from dialogue with the users
  • Usability testing, to make sure it gives a correct, helpful answer, and helps tell the story

To enhance visual design consider:

  • Ratio and proportion
  • Use of heavy, bold colours to make emphasis
  • Balance on both sides of the page
  • Proximity for items that are close to each other
  • Colour blind test on your visualisations
  • Use repetition and variation wisely to focus your intent


This article is a condensed form of a discussion on data visualisation techniques from the April 2019 CDO Hub event, led by Emma Cosh –  find Emma on Twitter @EGCosh.

The CDO Hub is an exclusive community of senior data leaders, that collaborate, share, learn and grow through our monthly events. Join the conversation with the CDO Hub LinkedIn community.



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