vol. 26 no. 1, March, 2021

Book Reviews

Dykes, Brent. Effective data storytelling: how to drive change with data, narrative and visuals. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2020. xv, 322 pp. ISBN. 978-1-119-61571-2 Price $39.95

Insight driving change is a principle permeating this book dealing with the theory and practice of data storytelling. The notion of insight is said to constitute a deeper understanding of existing information. Insight takes place as a result of looking at the information from a new perspective, observing new patterns, and understanding the data in new ways. The author makes a case from psychology that facts are not always sufficient to stimulate decisions—an emotional component in the communication is often needed to engage the recipients of a message. Another guiding thesis is that humans are basically storytellers rather than fact processors and that the human mind reacts differently to stories than to plain facts. Moreover, it is stated that narratives manage to connect logic and emotion tend to activate the brain to a larger extent than, for instance, simple statistical data. With reference to the rhetorical triad of ethos, pathos, and logos, each corresponding to different faculties of the human mind, the author proposes that the constituents of efficient, action-inducing communication are a triad of data, visuals, and narratives. It is further argued that adequate use of visuals and narratives will contribute to explain the insights made, as well as to enlighten and engage the target audience.

The book consists of nine chapters, out of which the first three are aimed at arguing for the superiority of narratives as compared to the presentation of plain facts for stimulating action. The remaining six chapters are devoted to discussing the building blocks of data stories and how the reader can create and calibrate a narrative that efficiently communicates the main insights to a specific target audience. The author brings in ideas from the age-old practice of storytelling in drama and theater to show how to build a successful narrative culminating in an aha moment where the key insights are presented. Two chapters are aimed at demonstrating how to select appropriate visualizations of data, how to adapt and calibrate the visualizations with a particular target audience in mind, and how to reduce the information contained in order to bring focus to the main points of the message and engage the audience. In the final chapter, there is a nod made to the narrative strategies of the late professor Hans Rosling, who managed to communicate statistical facts in a captivating way to large audiences.

The author uses many anecdotes, such as the discoveries made by the physician Ignaz Semmelweis, to demonstrate how an important message can fail to incite change if it is only communicated by means of facts and an appeal to logos. The book argues that, despite the repeated observation made of handwashing contributing to decreasing the mortality rate in childbed fever at maternity clinics, Semmelweis failed to convince the medical community of the effectiveness of this procedure. The reason stated is that he did not successfully communicate his insights to his peers, who at the time attributed the underlying causes to other factors than the lack of hygiene. This may be an oversimplification of the circumstances, but I still think that the book has a good point in claiming that efficient communication can stimulate action more efficiently than a straightforward presentation of facts.

The author quite consistently follows his own principles throughout the book by utilising simple yet effective visuals, narratives, and aphorisms to state his case and to guide the reader toward the construction of data stories tailored to specific situations. The chapters on the creation and adaptation of visuals alone make this book a highly recommended read. An aspect of the content in this book that I find particularly appealing is that it does not only focus on communication skills and techniques but also stresses that an effective narrative must be founded in a solid analysis of the data at hand. Invalid patterns based on cherrypicked data, confirmation bias, or spurious correlations can not be compensated by the use of well-made visualizations. With the slight reservation that I occasionally get the sense that the author builds his own narrative by means of a somewhat simplistic argumentation rather than strict scientific reasoning, I still find the book both enlightening and highly useful in practice. The content should be relevant to all kinds of situations where facts are to be communicated, such as teaching, meetings, and scientific conferences.

Johan Eklund, Senior Lecturer
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University of Borås, March, 2021

How to cite this review

Eklund, J.. (2021). Review of: Dykes, Brent. Effective data storytelling: how to drive change with data, narrative and visuals. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2020. Information Research, 26(1), review no. R713. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs713.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.