November 22, 2016

3 Tips for Using Data To Tell Your Story, Ethically

Data is an incredibly valuable tool. It allows us to observe, understand and assess our work. Importantly, data can also be used to tell our work’s story. Through metrics, measures, charts, and graphs, we can effectively highlight the impact of our work in ways that make current and potential donors take note.

As with any tool, we have an ethical responsibility to use it correctly. When it comes to using data for storytelling, we must find a way to be persuasive without being deceptive.

Do most organizations intend to deceive their audiences with data? Absolutely not! That said, it is easy to fall into some common traps when it comes to interpreting results or displaying information for our audience.

Fortunately, with just a few easy steps, we can ensure that we are crafting our stories responsibly and effectively.

Actively combat confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that agrees with what you already believe, and to discount opinions and data that disprove your beliefs. Whenever you embark on an analytical journey, keep an open mind and understand that the data may or may not confirm your hypothesis, and it may not always tell the story for which you are hoping.

To avoid bias, you can:

  • Enlist colleagues to help you do a bias check. Have them challenge your assumptions and the data you use to support them.

Choose the right way to display your data.

Using data to tell the story of your work relies heavily upon your ability to visualize your data.  There are many ways to do this, and even the same data can be visualized differently depending on the point you are trying to make.  This is the most helpful tool I’ve found in helping to decide what type of visualization will work best for your goal.

Once you choose how you will display your data, the first thing to consider is scale.

Take a look at the chart below. Which pie segment is the largest?

a pie chart split into 3 equal segments, with the bottom orange segment appearing largest because the image is 3D

Did you say the orange segment? In fact, each segment is exactly one-third of the pie.

A 2-dimensional pie chart split into three equal parts, so that all parts appear equal to the eye

This 3D visual distorts your perception and encourages you to mistakenly interpret the data.

Let’s look at another example. In the column charts below, it appears that there is a significant different between the columns on the left, but a small difference between the columns on the right.

2 2-column charts next to each other, with the one on the left appearing to show a greater difference

In fact, both of these charts us the same data but a different scale. The chart on the left overemphasizes the difference between the two columns by using a smaller range of numbers for the vertical axis.

2 2-column charts next to each other, this time with number showing the percentage difference

If someone were to use the scale on the left without explaining the actual small difference between the two columns, the discrepancy could be misinterpreted by the audience as much more substantial than it actually is.

Provide the appropriate context.

Are you being irresponsible if you use a chart that emphasizes a difference? Absolutely not! But you would need to provide the appropriate context so the audience knows how to interpret what they are seeing. That’s the job of the data visualizer, to clearly communicate what the audience should walk away knowing.

Here is an example of how to provide appropriate context for your story:

A column chart depicting a 5% difference, with accompanying text: This program was a success! We increased our donor engagement by 5% without spending a dime!

Data has tremendous potential to help purpose-driven organizations make smarter decisions, gain new insights, and effectively tell a story that is both persuasive and ethically sound. For more tips on how to effectively tell your story with data, check out the Data Playbook, and specifically the section on Communicating Results.

Are you using data to share the story of your work? Share your ideas with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation to help expand this community resource.


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Rella Kaplowitz