Storytelling with data: What you must understand about your readers

This is part 1 of our series on data-driven storytelling. Before we get into the techniques, we have to understand what the data says about readers.

We all have stories to tell. Whether it’s why your mission matters, why your business is better than your competition, how you got to where you are today, or about the latest political kerfuffle, data makes any story more engaging. And engagement is the name of the game.

Understanding your readers is the first step in writing a successful story. Without readers, you’re just screaming into an echo chamber. Your message is going nowhere.

The reader is the single most important element of a successful story.

Before you even begin crafting your story, you need to consider your reader. Who are they? Why do they care about what you have to say? How do they get information?

The first question, you have the answer to. The second question, you also have the answer to.

The third question, in today’s day and age, is most often answered with “The Internet.” This is great! And also a bummer. Here’s why:

A pair of ducks
It’s a paradox

“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”

This is a quote from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book called “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.”

Carr explains that psychologists have been studying the effects of the Internet on our brains for a long time. It is pretty well established that technology has had an irreversible effect on our lives and Carr argues that it has actually changed our neurobiological makeup as well. Our attention spans have become shorter and we have become more distractible.

In this world of constant stimulation, we have lost the ability to be content in boredom.

The Pew Research Center studied smartphone users in 2015 to better understand their motivations, use, and reliance on the devices. Smartphones are more and more relevant for those producing content on the web, as nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone. And of those people, 89 percent use their phone to access the Internet.

Shockingly, Pew also found that 77 percent of smartphone users reported they used their phone to avoid being bored. This was the second most common reason they picked up their phones!

Chart showing 80 percent of respondents said they use their phone to coordinate to meet with someone and 77 percent said to avoid being bored
Source: Pew Research Center

Perhaps even more amusing is that of 18-29 year olds in the study, 93 percent reported using their smartphones to avoid boredom. Uh oh.

Supporting Carr’s theory, Pew also found that “smartphone usage often produces feelings of productivity and happiness, but that many users also feel distracted or frustrated after mobile screen encounters.” Double uh oh.

Readers don’t read

Here is some striking data about how people read on the Internet. Take a moment and let these numbers sink in a bit.

  • Most readers scroll through 60 percent of an article before jumping ship [Slate].
  • You will lose 55 percent of your readers in the first 15 seconds [Time].

Oh. Em. Gee.

Boredom-information cycle

They are stuck in a Boredom-Information Loop. A never-ending cycle of despair!

They get bored. They seek out information as stimulus. The information isn’t as engaging as their brain was craving, so they get bored. It sucks and it’s clearly not working for anyone.

But… there is hope!

New technology enables interactive multimedia.

In the old days, interactive multimedia looked like this:

Elderly man reading a newspaper in shorts at a sunny kitchen table

A newspaper stimulated almost all of your senses. While reading, the paper would crinkle between your fingers, and you could smell the slightly earthy scent of the newsprint. The experience of reading a newspaper was freeing. You didn’t have to read it in any particular order and could jump between stories as you wished.

With a screen, one’s senses aren’t engaged in the same ways. But that doesn’t mean the experience has to be dull.

When readers are engaged, it’s a win-win for everybody.

Readers who are more engaged with the content have a better conceptual understanding of the material [Chartbeat].

Chart illustrating participants with longer engaged times answered more questions correctly about the content

The readers in this study who spent more time reading an article, were more likely to remember details correctly, even when they were being asked about information at the beginning of an article.

Like I said earlier, engagement is the name of the game. When our readers are engaged, we are doing our jobs. The trick is getting them to actually be engaged.

I’ll leave you with a little tidbit: When an article has graphics, most readers scroll through 100% of it [Slate].

After all, which of these looks better to you?

Illustration of 60 percent of a text-heavy article
60 percent of article.
Illustration of 100 percent of article with graphics interspersed.
100 percent of article.

In future articles, we’ll explore some exciting ways that technology is enabling more engaging storytelling techniques, how data visualizations add interest to stories, the dos and don’ts of data visualizations, real life examples of interactive data visualizations, and tools to make your own data visualizations and infographics.