Data Storytelling with use of Color and Charts

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As part of my role, very often, I work on client proposals, and the output of it is usually in the form of PowerPoint presentations. What makes it fun is that this is a team effort and teams across engineering, pre-sales, sales, marketing, legal, finance, and HR work together in these proposals. I get to work with several such proposals in which my task is to make the presentation impactful with data storytelling.

Presentations come in several forms – the good, the bad, the ugly and the great ones. One thing that I had observed from the great ones is the intelligent use of colours with data, appropriate charts and the headlines that convey what the slide is all about.

Since this is a season of webinars and virtual presentations, I thought of sharing one method which is simple to use at the same time help you to make impactful data presentations.

Here is a brief background for this presentation slide.

Amidst COVID, Company A’s management team is looking at the spend of various departments and wants to prioritize, which spend needs to be optimized from a short-term saving perspective. They also want to look at department level spends to prioritize any long-term strategic initiatives. The management intends to target the top-15 spend items based on value.

A typical representation will be in the form of bar-chart like the one below, it is devoid of any data storytelling elements.

Bar chart for accounts payable in alphabetical order of vendors


The above bar chart is a simple bar-chart with data labels within the bars, clear color choices for data labels and bars. But does it convey anything except there are 15 vendors and a bunch of some random spends?

What do you think will be the psyche of the presenter and the audience (in this case, top executives of the organization)?

Now, the next best way to do this representation is to sort the spend from biggest to smallest, and this gives a clear idea of which vendor accounts for the most to the least spend. This representation tells a story of your accounts payable situation.

This one is similar to the above chart, with clear data labels within bars, use of colour that is easy on eyes, free of grid lines which enables a neat representation. The scale on x-axis can be taken off to make it even better.

Bar chart for accounts payable descending order - highest to lowest spend - data storytelling step one

But, is there a way to make it even better to aid in decision making?


The following bar chart shows that just three vendors account for 40% of the spend, and they are highlighted with the use of colour variation, which helps in building your data narrative.


Remember to not use multiple colours as that will lead to confusion. It is better to use a variation of a base colour, as it serves the purpose of highlight and lowlight.

With this chart, anyone running this presentation will be able to articulate the story better. And the executives know where to focus their attention when it comes to spend optimization.

Bar chart on accounts payable in descending order of values and highlighted for top-three spends by vendor - data storytelling step two


The other way to further help in decision making is to provide additional inputs along with the bar chart – with the category of spends, current spend vs forecast or comparing against similar quarter or last quarter spend which gives a sense of the expense trend specific to the category. It strengthens your approach to craft a narrative around data.
One can also add specific intelligence like spend on strategic initiatives that give long term benefits and then context-specific information such as COVID related spend.

By using this approach, anyone new to the decision-making process will be able to make an informed decision with the amount of intelligence that is provided in the chart.

Bar chart on accounts payable with spends categorized based on different functions and with additional comment - data storytelling step three


To make your visual & data storytelling better, use the right choice of colours and pair it with data, meaningfully categorize data based on categories, and provide additional inputs wherever possible. I have used the variations of this method in different scenarios, and it helped me in making an impactful presentation.

Have you tried data storytelling in your analytics proposals or meetings on financial projections? Trust me, you will see meetings becoming a lot more outcome-driven when you start practising storytelling.  

How Leaders Can Craft a Strategic Narrative?

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.

He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.

But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.

This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.

Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?

A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?

And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.

To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah

To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?

How Good is Your Strategy?

According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”

For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.

A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.

When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.

Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.

What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.

One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.

Curse of Knowledge

Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.

When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.

One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.

FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.

When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.

Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.

Communicating the Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.

It consists of four parts,

  1. In the past…..
  2. Then something happened….
  3. So now….. and
  4. In the future….

It addresses the, “Why.”

So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.

With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.

Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.

By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.   

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