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Data storytelling, lauded for its potential, lags in practice

Educators and experts tout data storytelling as a way to better engage business managers with data, but others caution about overcrowding visuals.

As organizations increasingly use business intelligence and analytics tools to drive more effective decision making, IT teams are faced with the challenge of explaining their findings in ways business executives can easily understand. That has led to the rise of data storytelling: crafting a narrative based on analytics information, usually with the aid of charts and other data visualizations.

The buzz: Proponents say storytelling engages business managers better than simply handing them unvarnished data to decipher. Pamela Peele, chief analytics officer at healthcare system UPMC's insurance services division, calls a former journalist hired to tell data stories one of her most important team members. BI vendors are touting the storytelling features of their products, education outfit TDWI has added a course on the topic to its conferences, and colleges such as Boston University and Georgetown offer workshops and adult education classes in data storytelling.

The reality: A search for data storyteller on the jobs site Indeed yielded just two listings, and both were job descriptions for data analysts with storytelling skills. Tapping such professionals is one way to go, but data scientists adept at crafting data stories and communicating with business users can be a rare breed. Also, it's possible to go overboard with visualizations and create graphics that, as consultant Claudia Imhoff put it, "are lovely to look at but unintelligible." That scenario isn't likely to produce a story with a happy ending.

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