Telling stories with data

I’m about 20% through with The Verdict by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala. It’s a fascinating book, except for one annoyance – it is full of tables that serve no purpose but to break the flow of text.

I must mention that I’m reading the book on the Kindle, which means that the tables can pose a major annoyance. Text breaks off midway through one page, and the next couple of pages involve a table or two, with several lines of text explaining what’s in the table. And then the text continues. It makes for a rather disruptive reading experience. And some of the tables have just one data point – making one wonder why it has been inserted there at all.

This is not the first book that I’ve noticed that makes this mistake. Some of the sports analytics books I’ve read in recent times, such as The Numbers Game also make the same error (I read that in print, and still had the same disruption). Bhagwati and Panagariya’s Why Growth Matters is similarly unreadable. Tables abruptly inserted into the middle of text, leading to the reader losing flow in the reading.

Telling a data story in book length is a completely different challenge to telling one in article length. And telling a story with data is a complete art form. When you’re putting a table there, you need to be able to explain why that table is important to the story – rather than putting it there just because it seems more rigorous.

Also the exact placement of the table (something that can’t be controlled well in Kindle, but is easy to fix in either HTML or print) matters –  the table should be relevant to the piece of text immediately preceding and succeeding it, in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the reader’s flow. More importantly, the table should be able to add value at that particular point – perhaps building on something that has been described in the previous paragraph.

Book length makes it harder because people don’t normally expect tables and figures to disturb their reading flow when reading something of book length. Also, the book format means that it is not always possible to insert a table at a precise point (even in print, where pagination is an issue).

So how do you tell a book length story with data? Firstly, be very stingy about the data that you want to show – anything that doesn’t immediately add value should be banished to the appendix. Even the rigour, which academics might be particular about, can be pushed to the end notes (not footnotes, since those can be disruptive to flow as well, turning pages into half pages).

Then, once you know that showing a particular table or graph is inevitable to telling the story, put it either in the beginning or the end of a chapter. This way, it doesn’t break the reader’s flow. Then, refer to individual numbers in the middle of the text without having to put the entire table in there. Unless each and every data point in the table is important, banish it to the endnotes.

One other common mistake (I did it in my piece in Forbes published yesterday) is to put a big table and not talk about it. It only seeks to confuse the reader, who starts looking for explanations for everything in the table in later parts.

I guess authors and analysts tend to get possessive. If you have worked hard to produce insights from data, you seek to share as much of it as possible. And this can mean simply dumping data all the data in the piece without a regard for what the reader will do with it.

I’m making a note to myself to not repeat this mistake in future.