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  • Writer's pictureEtienne Oosthuysen

Is visual storytelling with data the new reporting, a Power BI story

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Can Power BI bake visual data stories into the day-to-day reporting landscape?

Update 12 March 2022 - #PowerPoint integration into #PowerBi enhances the visual storytelling capabilities of Power BI even further. More at the end of this article.

Dashboards, the data visualisation kind, have now been around for a long time and is the go to solution that execs and managers rely on for a quick snapshot of how things are tracking in their organisation, department, team, or project.

There has been a trend where data workers or consumers use the term 'dashboard' to also describe highly visual and interactive reports, quite possibly due to the fact that both dashboards and highly visual and interactive reports are in fact....erm...highly visual. And both provide visual snapshots of how things are tracking in the organisation, department, team, or project. But, it is, strictly speaking, not correct to confuse the two as they are two separate constructs, yet related to each other. One way to differentiate between dashboards and interactive reports would through the role they can play in visual storytelling.

A second question arises, and that is whether visual storytelling with data is simply the new way to describe dashboards and reports (i.e. data visualisation).

This article lifts the lid on these concepts and shows why visual storytelling is not simply the new word for data visualisation, but it also shows how data visualisation and the tools used for it (in this case #PowerBi) can be used for visual storytelling. In other words all data visualisations do not necessarily tell visual stories, but they can. This article describes how, with #PowerBi via examples.


A dashboard is used to monitor performance. They must provide easy to understand, at a quick glance, information (even real-time), to drive subsequent investigations. Power BI describes a dashboard as "a tool businesses use to help track, analyse, and display data, usually to gain deeper insight into the overall wellbeing of the organization, a department, or even a specific process...Just like in a car, dashboards indicate how far along you are on your journey and how long it may take to get where you want to go."

Mico Yuk, a leader in the field of the power of data visualization, who I was fortunate enough to see delivering a keynote a few years back at SQL Pass in Santa Clara, says that a dashboard must have "a current state (where am I now), a trend (how did I get here), a forecast (where will I end up at this rate) and what-if (what can I do to change my goals)" - sorta in line with the Power BI description.

Many people will tell you that dashboards tell stories. Sorry, but by themselves, they simply don't. Mico for example evangelises the concept of a BI Storyboard that uses a framework whereby dashboards and reports are designed and woven together to tell an entire story. Her framework does not include only dashboards. They are merely the starting points that draws your attention to something, that is then analysed further.

The quick glance key metrics used in dashboards (such as a result, its's trends, outliers, etc.) is not storytelling but rather the framing of important information for the user. Brent Dykes, calls dashboards exploratory, rather than explanatory. They frame the types of potential insights and stories that can emerge from the data. They therefore provide Storyframing rather than storytelling.


Once storyframing occurs, i.e. once attention is drawn to something, the interactive report take up the mantle, and provides full interactive data visualisation, drill down to deeper levels of detail, and drill through to context so that the analyst can investigate and understand. Platforms, such as Power BI, supports seamless transition from dashboard (storyframing) to interactive report because the analyst who could have been triggered by the storyframing, now wants to go on a journey of discovery in an as seamless manner as possible.

Is storytelling simply data visualisation, rebranded?

So, now that we understand the difference between dashboards (storyframing) and interactive visual reports (data visualisation), we can assume that visual storytelling is just data visualisation, right? Nup!!

Data visualisation is just that, a visual representation of the substance of the metrics and could include charts, tables, and the science behind the visuals such as shapes, colours, sizing and placement.

Storytelling with data goes further. It pivots around the ideas of purpose and narrative. Each piece of data included must contribute to the intended purpose. Anything (e.g. data, metric, visual, etc) that do not directly contribute to the purpose is superfluous. And the method of presentation of a visual story must be by way of a narrative that focus on the purpose.

And that, i.e. narrative (focussing on the purpose) is the fundamental difference between data visualisation and visual storytelling. Of course the latter includes data visualisation, but data visualisation is not visual storytelling merely because it is visual. It must tell that purpose focussed story.

How do you develop a purpose focussed story visually?

Narrative, or storylines, will typically contain characters, a setting, conflict, and a resolution. This is the same with data storytelling.

I am going to illustrate this by way of a backstory.

Imagine an energy provider has seen a spike in customer churn, specifically those under 45, the primary customer base. My dashboard may initially have drawn the attention to the downward trend in customer numbers. Deeper insights through interactive reports showed a time correlation between the start date of the downward trend and an increase in negative social media chatter about the company's planned fracking in Australia.

Crafting the narrative to illustrate this important issue includes:

The characters are the customers between 25 and 44, environmentally conscious Australian public, and the company's management and marketing departments.

The setting includes the customers, the a focus on the 25 to 44 year old segment.

The conflict includes research showing how younger customers are increasingly environmentally conscious, for example it was found that 40% of Australians would be willing to pay more for ethical and sustainable products with this portion higher amongst younger consumers. It must also include the correlation between the upward trend in social media chatter (and the downward trend in the sentiment), and the downward trend in customer numbers. Showing the potential customer base, I.e. all home owners and renters in Australia between 25 and 44, as well as the population projections will add additional important context.

The resolution must focus on the company's plans regarding conventional gas (i.e. gas held in porous reservoir formations in rock) vs unconventional gas (i.e. gas is found in more complex geological formations that limit the ability of gas to be extracted and requiring extra steps to extract the gas, such as fracking - which is the most environmentally unfriendly) and its participation in GreenPower, a scheme that is accredited by the federal government, that helps customers support renewable energy generation (albeit at the expense of higher electricity prices) and the company's related Green Electricity Guide score being one of the highest in Australia.

Note that the conflict could be replaced with a win too, for example if a campaign exceeds a goal, then the conflict would be replaced with a win.

The next step is to create your narrative by clever use of data visualisations that takes the audience on a journey through each of these these elements (the characters, the settings, the conflict/ win and the resolution). I will show how this is done a little later on in this article.

So what's the big deal, is data visualisation not as effective as visual storytelling?

Data visualisation can definitely lead to very effective insights, in my backstory the analyst discovered the correlation between the downward trend in customer numbers and an increase in negative social media chatter, but without the accompanying narrative, data visualisations often lack a clear call to, and direction of action. My view is if data solutions lack clear calls to actions they are often meaningless or their intentions are lost.

Is visual story telling therefore a one off created artefact to communicate the narrative to an audience?

One could be excused for thinking that visual storytelling is a one-off affair when you look at the backstory above, but there is an increasing trend to use the concepts of visual storytelling for dashboard and visual interactive report design and development. Mico Yuk for example promotes the idea of storyboarding when deciding on the most appropriate dashboard/ report development.

Dashboards and reports are typically not created as one-off solutions, as the metrics and trends they showcase changes as the data changes through time. This means that for developers of solutions such as Power BI, it is important to think about their solutions through the lens of narrative, storyframing and storytelling. Storytelling in data solutions is therefore now expected and pretty important.

Can this be done in Power BI?

We see so many great examples of visual storytelling in digital news articles, for example this one from ABC News - How life has changed for people your age - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), where stories and data merge and come to life.

Is this possible through a BI platform such as Power BI?

To answer that, one must look at the audience of a BI solution. The audience is normally the exec who will use the visual data story in a board meeting, or a senior manager when communicating the key messages to their teams, or a team manager that needs to monitor the performance of her/his area, an operational worker that relies on a report for operational tasks, and so on. Those audiences typically do not work with text heavy artefacts, as is the case with casual news article readers (for example readers of the aforementioned ABC news article), but instead rely on a visually informative reporting landscape. So the question is RATHER can Power BI can bake visual data stories into the day-to-day reporting landscape?

Let's revisit the backstory and the four narrative elements (characters, setting, conflict/ win, and resolution) of our fake energy provider, ACME, and see if we could craft something that conveyed this narrative and lead to actionable insight?

The characters are the customers between 25 and 44, environmentally conscious Australian public and therefor our fake company's customers in this cohort, and the target audience is ACME's management (decision makers) and marketing departments.

The storyframe shows our 25 to 44 cohort as being our second largest customer segment, with a high population growth trend and high support for phasing out fossil fuels. It is also worth noting that the future for the 25 to 44 cohort, i.e. the 00 to 24 segments shows the highest population change, so its worth keeping that additional cohort in mind in this analysis.

Further story framing shows that our setting is our 25 to 44 segment, and specifically in NSW as that is where the highest percentage of customer churn is occurring.

The conflict is confirmed through key trend analysis that shows the population growth for our segments as well as the correlation between customer loss, and social media sentiment across data that monitors topics such as #Fracking and #ACME (our fake company).

Selecting New South Wales confirms our setting and the conflict analysed.

Our resolution is highlighted by the final piece in our #PowerBI visual story, but in stead of drilling into the 25 to 44 segment for New South Wales, we look at the future of the future 25 to 44 segment, i.e. the 00 to 24 segment. We can see a significant population increase in our cohort (future customers), and an expected further customer churn in this cohort of a call to action and marketing around it is not taken. The call to actions is clearly spelled out.

So, can Power BI be used for effective visual story telling with data?

My view is yes, and it provides more. Unlike other methods of visual story telling which delivers a great user experience but are mostly static, the #PowerBi visuals shown are interactive which means it can be analysed for any state, age group, date, etc. and they will change as the data changes (notably customer numbers), including the forecasts. And that is the major benefit of merging the concepts of visual story telling with data and interactive reporting tools such as Power BI.

Update 12 March 2022 - #PowerPoint integration into #PowerBi was announced as part of the key note at #PowerBiSummit. Although full details re not yet available, this will enhance the visual storytelling capabilities of Power BI even further. More to come.

All of these report pages were built from underlying data (ABS, Lowy Institute, Pop sci, and dummy customer data).

Additional references


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