Data Storytelling: The Art of Knowing Your Audience


๐Ÿ‘‹ Hey, everybody, imagine this. You’re hanging out with friends at a party ๐ŸŽ‰. You’re buzzing with excitement because you’ve got this hilarious story to tell ๐Ÿ˜„. It’s a winner, full of laughs and clever bits. But hold up! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ Who are you about to share this epic tale with? Is it your childhood buddies who’ve known you forever? Or is it your new classmates from school who are still figuring you out?

๐Ÿ‘ฅ Your audience changes the way your story lands, doesn’t it? Suddenly, your surefire joke might not be the perfect fit. That story about when you accidentally turned your pet’s fur pink with some DIY pet grooming? It might have your old friends rolling on the floor, but your new classmates might not find it as amusing. ๐Ÿ™ƒ

As we move through life, we naturally adapt our communication to suit who we’re talking to. We switch up our vibe from being a BFF to a hardworking student to a family member, tweaking our words, tone, and stories to match the situation. This is because we know that communication isn’t just about what we want to put out there. It’s about what the other person, the listener, is ready and open to take in.

๐Ÿ—ฃ๏ธ Today, we’re going to dig into the importance of knowing your audience. ๐ŸŽฏ


Why is Knowing Your Audience Important?
  • Understanding your audience helps you tailor the data story to their interests and needs. It allows you to connect with them on a deeper level, providing context and insights that resonate with them.

Think about a time you played a new video game or maybe even a new board game. When you first start, you don’t just dive in. You get to know the rules, understand the game’s strategies, and figure out how to win. Similar to a game, when you’re about to give a data storytelling presentation, you first need to understand your audience’s interests, needs, and level of understanding.

  • Audience members may have different levels of understanding and familiarity with the subject matter. If you’re presenting to a group of experts, you can dive deep into details and use more technical language. However, for a lay audience, you might need to explain more basic concepts and use simpler language.

Knowing your audience helps you share your data story in a way that makes sense to them. Just like you wouldn’t explain how to play a complex video game to your grandma the same way you’d explain it to your best friend, you wouldn’t present the same data story to math experts as you would to beginners. Knowing your audience should influence how you present your data story, the examples you use, and the language you choose.ย 

  • Knowing your audience’s preferences enables you to engage them more effectively. This includes understanding their attention spans, preferred methods of receiving information (such as visuals, text, and spoken word), and what type of questions they might ask.

Sometimes, you might need to use simple language; other times, you might need to dive deep into the details. Understanding your audience can help you pick relevant examples that resonate with them, just like choosing the perfect meme to share with your friends.

  • Audience research can reveal important cultural considerations. This could influence how you present your data story, the examples you use, and your chosen language.

Audience research highlights varying communication preferences across cultures, prompting you to adjust your presentation style to balance being informative and respecting cultural norms. By incorporating these cultural considerations, your data presentation becomes more inclusive and relatable to the diverse global audience, fostering better understanding and engagement.

  • You build trust and credibility by showing that you understand your audience and their context. This can make your audience more receptive to your data story. The level of trust that you have already built with an audience impacts how much data and background information you need to include

Knowing your audience also helps build trust and credibility. Imagine telling your friends about your favorite new video game, and they’re interested because they trust your opinion. Just like that, your audience will trust your data story if you show that you understand them and their context.


Learning About Your Audience

Step 1: Identify your audience

Start with a general overview. Use any prior information about your audience or the event where you’ll be presenting. If you’re giving a presentation at a conference, research the conference theme and the other presentations. If it’s for a class, consider the class’s subject and the expected level of knowledge.

Just like you’d figure out if you’re playing a game with friends or family, first find out who your audience is. Maybe you’re presenting in a science class or at a school science fair. Look at the subject or theme of the event and who’s attending.

Step 2: Understand the audience’s background

Once you know who your audience is, you need to dig deeper. What is their education level, and what is their familiarity with the topic at hand? Survey the audience or the organizer beforehand to gather this information. In professional settings, LinkedIn, professional organization websites, or published articles can provide some insights.

Next, learn about their education level and familiarity with the topic. Maybe you’re presenting to 9th graders who just started learning about statistics, or to your school’s math club, where everyone knows a lot already. Try to get this information by asking your teacher, school principal, or event organizer, or you might even survey attendees beforehand if that is feasible.

Step 3: Determine the audience’s interest and expectations

Why is your audience attending this presentation? What are they hoping to learn or gain from it? If feasible, ask potential audience members what they expect or wish to learn from the presentation. For a public presentation, you might use social media or online forums to ask these questions. You can also infer their interests based on the nature of the event or meeting.

Step 4: Recognize the audience’s preconceptions

What pre-existing knowledge, beliefs, or attitudes might your audience have about your topic? Set up interviews with key stakeholders to learn about their perspectives. This can be challenging to determine without direct contact with your audience, but it’s often possible to make educated guesses based on the context.

Try to understand what they already think or know about your topic. Just like you’d change your game strategy based on what you know about your opponents, adjust your data story based on what you know about your audience’s beliefs and attitudes.

Step 5: Assess the audience’s data literacy
Finally, figure out how well your audience understands data. You can use more complex data if they’re used to dealing with numbers and charts. But if they’re beginners, stick to simple data and explanations.


Adjusting Your Presentation

Now that you know your audience, how do you adjust your presentation?

  • Keep it simple: Try to use simple language as much as possible. It is always better to err on simplicity to ensure as many people as possible understand your message. If you need to use technical words, explain them just like you’d explain a complex game rule.
  • Stay relevant:ย  You might love every single detail of your data story, but your audience might only care about a few key points. The goal is not to fit the story to their preconceptions but rather frame the story and the facts in a way that will resonate with them.
  • Use visuals: Show, don’t tell. Use graphs, charts, and diagrams to make complex ideas easy to understand. Presenting overly complex data or using advanced statistical concepts can alienate an audience not familiar with these ideas.
  • Get feedback: Ask questions during your presentation or have a Q&A session at the end. This way, you can understand if your audience is following along or if you need to explain something again. Even with preparation, you may need to adjust your presentation on the fly based on your audience’s reactions.



Lily’s Stellar Presentation: Aligning the Stars with Her Audience

Lily, a high school sophomore, had always been passionate about astronomy. The shimmering stars, the intriguing planets, and the mysteries of the cosmos fascinated her. When she had to present a data-driven project for her statistics class, naturally, she chose a topic revolving around the fascinating realm of outer space.

Her presentation titled “Journey to Mars: Are We Ready Yet?” was all about the feasibility of human life on Mars based on available data. But before she dived into her research, she realized the importance of tailoring her narrative to suit her audience: her classmates.

Lily was well aware that her classmates had varying degrees of interest and understanding about space exploration. While some, like her, were aspiring astronauts, others simply viewed space as the backdrop for their favorite sci-fi movies. She wanted her presentation to resonate with everyone, sparking curiosity about the cosmos irrespective of their previous interest or knowledge.

To achieve this, Lily started by creating a brief, anonymous survey that she sent out to her class using a group chat. The questions were designed to assess her classmates’ existing knowledge about space exploration, their interest level, and what they would love to learn from her presentation. The responses painted a clear picture: while most students had a basic understanding and interest in space, they wanted to understand its relevance to their lives.

Now that Lily understood her audience, she framed her presentation to not only show the scientific data about Mars exploration but also emphasized its impact on everyday life. She discussed how innovations for Mars could lead to advancements in technology on Earth, such as improving recycling systems, advancing solar energy, and even creating new materials for construction.

Lily also recognized that a significant chunk of her audience were visual learners. So, she used vibrant infographics, charts, and even incorporated clips from popular space-themed movies to explain complex concepts. This visual narrative turned the data into compelling stories that kept her classmates engaged.

To respect her audience’s cultural diversity, Lily took time to highlight international contributions to space exploration, pointing out how this endeavor brought nations together in pursuit of a common goal.

In the end, Lily’s effort to understand her audience paid off. Her presentation was well-received, with her peers expressing that they had not only learned new things but also found a new appreciation for space exploration. By aligning her stars with her audience, Lily made sure her presentation was not just another school assignment but a memorable journey into the cosmos for everyone.

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