A 5 Minute Data Storytelling Masterclass

I’ve analyzed some of the best examples of data storytelling I’ve ever seen. In this post, I’ll take you through my findings so you can start applying them right away.

I’ve been following Hannah’s Ritchie‘s work for a few years and have been impressed at how well she communicates the findings of her analyses. Most of her articles you’ll find over at Our World in Data (where she works as Deputy Editor & Science Outreach Lead), and she also has guest posts at publications such as the Washington Post and Wired.

What’s really struck me has been her recent posts that she publishes in her own newsletter, Sustainability by Numbers.

These articles are some of the best examples of compelling data storytelling I’ve seen, so I decided to take a closer look at them. At the time of my analysis (3rd February 2023), there were 12 articles available.

General impression

What struck me is how simple and accessible they are (which I’m sure has taken a lot of effort to achieve).

Can we learn from them to improve our own communication?

Yes we can. It will take practice, but there’s definitely a structure and style to emulate.

If you’ve read her articles, you’ll understand the effect yourself. 

If you need further proof, the newsletter gained 7k subscribers in just over 2 months (~Dec2022 to Jan 2023), from just 12 posts. 

Hannah has a large twitter following of 65k and is her only active social platform. This is a huge conversion rate to newsletter subscribers, especially given Twitter’s drop in engagement over the exact period her substack launched. People are likely sharing her work widely outside of Twitter. 

Layout & Content – Keeping it Simple

Here’s the typical layout of a post:

Posts are short:

  • 1200 words
  • 2-4 charts
  • 4-6 min reading time
  • Published every ~6 days

Writing style is conversational, direct and accessible. Graphs are simple. 

Lack of traditional caveats and limitations, rather built into the language:

  • “tried to” 
  • “strong signal” 
  • “at the moment at least” 
  • “it’s a sign that”
  • “back-of -envelope” 
  • “quick sense-check”
  • “thought experiment”

The take-aways still come through clearly and confidently.

Charts use just a few, simple, widely-used formats:

  • Best practices
    • Reduce clutter
    • Remove redundant info
    • Label data
    • Findings in title / subheading
    • Annotations
  • Simple:
    • Line chart
    • Bar incl stacked, grouped 

Now let’s look at the order – Question, Answer, Evidence

Flow of content is QAE: 

  • Question
  • Answer
  • Evidence

Usually authors introduce Answer at the end, but Hannah places them right up front, usually in the subtitle. 

Within a few seconds of reading, you’re rewarded.

The approach is to first share the insight/takeaway/conclusion and then use remaining sections to handling Q&A which often controls for other variables, addresses common counterarguments or sprinkle in some methodology.

Punchy & informative headlines, not clickbait

Often just reading the headline already rewards you for the attention you’ve given it.

Graphs are super simple – just the basics that most people already understand how to read

Note the best practices incl simple graphs, title/subtitle content, low clutter and annotation to demonstrate interpretation

Recommendation – Learn from her!

Use this as inspiration for your next piece of communication. Whether it be an article, a presentation or even an email. And of course, don’t forget to sign up to her newsletter.

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