Data Storytelling

Bring data to life. Spreadsheets are boring!

Published on Dec 6, 2014 3:00 AM

Data. Less Huff and Puff. More Brevity.

Last week I attended ClickZ Live Singapore, a digital conference that badges itself as helping marketers and agencies embrace the digital revolution from implementation to impact. I think they did a pretty good job of living up to that title with a great range of speakers covering all aspects of digital marketing. I got the shift before lunch, and decided to talk about what I’ve learnt over the past year in building Nugit—making data simple and less confusing. Here are my slides and the story I told…


I’ve been in digital media for eight years now. About a year back, I calculated that I probably spent 50% of my time battling spreadsheets and wrangling data. That’s four years of my working life! That’s when I decided to quit my media job and quit spreadsheets. There’s got to be a better way. I came up with Nugit. We’re a bunch of data scientists, analysts, developers, front-end designers and data artists. You can see all of us on our LinkedIn Page.

Nugit is essentially an analytics company so we work with lots of data. The funny thing is, none of us use Excel or Google Spreadsheets. It’s awesome. There are plenty of better ways to present data. Just compare my first and second slide. The first shows two Chinese characters. Doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know Chinese, right? That’s my point. We digital folk often communicate in our own language. But to get our message across, we need to communicate in a universal language, one that everyone understands. It’s not spreadsheets.

Brevity, not complexity

I truly believe that digital people make digital extra complicated. Sometimes we deliberately confuse. Even with eight years on the job, I can listen to some people talk about DSPs, DMPs and RTB and have absolutely no idea what they’re going on about. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot, digital people. Digital channels are now more transparent, measurable, optimisable, targeted and closer to the purchase process. People are spending more time consuming digital media on their phones, tablets and laptops than any other medium. Yet if you look at media spend, we’re getting cents in the dollar. We’re under-performing and I reckon confusion and complexity have a lot to do with it. It’s like big data. Big buzzword? More like big confusion, if you ask me. 99% of us don’t work with big data. Anything you can manage in Excel hardly qualifies. What we’re doing is adding verbiage to something that hasn’t changed—another example of creating complexity and confusion. It’s time for less huff and puff and more brevity. On this point, I should add that a consultant came up to me after my presentation and said: “If we make our reports and analysis so simple, clients won’t value it.” Wow, I’m sorry, sir, but if you think your product is spreadsheets, you ought to rethink your value proposition. I subscribe to the Margaret Thatcher way. As Britain’s Prime Minister, she insisted that every brief arriving at her desk was no more than a single sheet of paper. Even for the Falklands War. Simplicity is possible.

Make data simple to understand Visual language is the way to go. It’s simple and universally understood. Here are a couple of tips and tricks for those of you just starting out with data visualisation:

  1. Size – Instantly recognisable and relative
  2. Context – Comparisons and clear headlines help people understand if something is good or bad
  3. Ideograms and Symbols – You shouldn’t need to be an expert at something to understand it
  4. Familiarity – If you must present detail, do it in a way your audience is used to. Like the Premier League table in my presentation.

To round things off, I also came up with some Best Practices – Do’s and Don’ts. These are things we are all guilty of, myself included. But with these guiding principles, we’re going to have more luck communicating how effective digital is to our stakeholders. We’re going to see better outcomes, I’m sure of it. Do

  1. Give context to everything you present – Compare to your category, your sister brands, last year’s results. Any comparison helps.
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Make sure it’s relevant
  4. Surprise your audience


  1. Clutter – If you’re not sure, reduce. Then reduce and reduce some more.
  2. Present redundant content – What’s redundant? A pie chart and a table with the same data on the same slide.
  3. Mislead – Honest results help you address problems. Playing with axis scales and other elements to mislead your audience doesn’t help decision-making.
  4. Indulge – 3D pie charts might make you feel clever but if they don’t help your audience understand the insight, avoid them.

So that’s it! I hope you enjoy my presentation slides. Do leave a comment (here, or in Slideshare) and share your experiences with making data simple, easy to understand and actionable.

Chief Data

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