Telling Tales with Tableau

Matt Francis
am July 29, 2014

Editor's note: This Storytelling Month guest blog post was written by Matt Francis of Wannabe Data Rock Star.

Stories have had a pivotal role in the sharing of information throughout history. From sitting around a campfire to blockbuster films, stories have allowed people to exchange ideas. One reason for this is that stories are an incredibly memorable way to pass on information.


Think about all the strong memories that you have of your childhood, the chances are there is a story behind them. Not only do you remember yourself falling out of that tree, but you remember the reasons behind it, what led up to it and the aftermath of it. You don’t remember the incident in isolation, but in a rich memory of surrounding events. You play back the memory like a filmstrip, each frame adding a little bit more detail as the story unfolds. People that take part in memory challenges use this powerful technique. They picture themselves walking through a hotel. As they pass each room they look inside and place objects within it. Then when they wish to recall the objects they walk back through the hotel in their minds. Using a series of visualisations to recall what they were storing in their memory.


Stories are a powerful way of eliciting an emotional response and can me a great way of persuading someone around to your point of view. When you are trying to make a case for change using a powerful message enables you to get the decision makers on your side.

Sequential Art

I came across this term when I was researching my TCC talk. Sequential art is an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information. Examples such as cave paintings and early hieroglyphics predate written language and could be considered the first form of data visualization.

Using a sequence of images to tell a story, to pass on the information to future generations. Later Egyptian hieroglyphics codified the images into repeatable and easier to reproduce symbols.

And today modern comic books still use the same technique of a series of images to tell a story. So in the same way could we now talk of sequential Data visualization?

Sequential Data Visualation

Using data to tell a story is nothing new, some of the most famous data vizzes are great examples of that. Our old friend Charles Mindard’s viz of Napoleons march on Moscow tells the story of the campaign in a wonderful single viz.


However its real power comes from the story behind the image, behind the data. First you see just a line getting thinner and thinner, then changing colour and returning. But when you also factor in the temperatures and then realise that those lines represent the number of lives being lost it has a much greater meaning.

Data viz or Data Story?

So what is the difference between a viz and story? Are they the same thing? Well yes and no. An exploratory data viz dashboard would tend to be impartial, carry no agenda or bias. A data viz is generally used to present some information, provide some tools and allow the viewer to explore the data. You are not trying to present a certain point of view.

A data story on the other hand is presenting the data in a certain way. You are leading the viewer through the data, pointing out interesting bits of information, guiding them. You are saying “Look at this data, see how it affects this and what the outcome it” You are taking them on a guided tour through your data set, until you reach the destination. So, its important to plan they journey for them to make sure they follow you to the end.

Plan your Story

An effective story needs to be planned out and there are a number of things you need to consider

  1. Plot: What story are you trying to tell? What is the point of it? What do you want people to think or feel by the end of it.
  2. Characters: These are your data sets, your filters, and your parameters. What elements are you going to use to drive the plot on? Do you use a map? Do you need to have some text to explain the data to the viewer? How is each element going to contribute to the overall story?
  3. Audience: Who is going to read your story? Is it as part of a presentation, which you will be presenting? Is it going to be viewed by someone on their own? How alien is the data and concepts to the viewer, will you have to explain a lot of the terms? Remember you will not be there to explain it to them. So make sure your voice is in the story.

The next thing to do is create a storyboard, plan what vizzes or dashboards you are going to use, what order you are going to present the data and how you are going to combine your characters and plot together. It’s useful to use the 3 Act narrative structures.

Act 1: The Set-up

Explain what the point of the story is. Introduce your plot and where you are going to take the viewer.

Act 2: The Action

This is the bulk of your story; this is where you combine your characters and the plot elements to tell your story. Take the viewer on a journey, showing them more information as you go.

Act 3: The Denouement

Finally you have reached the climax of the story, by this point your viewer has absorbed all the plot points you have created and now they are ready for your final viz to end the story.

By bearing in mind these few guidelines you will be able to plan and create a compelling data story to share your data with your audience.


Tableau 8.2 story points make it easy to create a rich interactive story that combined multiple workbooks into a cohesive narrative. There are however a few do’s and don’ts that are worth bearing in mind

Don’t use stories for everything: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Stories are great, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this blog, but sometimes you don’t need them. If there isn’t a good reason to create one then don’t. A single dashboard or viz might be the most effective choice. Treat each one on a case by case basis and use the best viz for the job

Story points are not a PowerPoint killer

I’ve seen this a lot since the release of 8.2 and it’s a little bit of a misnomer. If you are presenting a dozen slides and half of them are data vizzes then turning them into a story makes sense. Then again, if you have 20 slides one of which is a viz then maybe PowerPoint is the way to go. As in the first tip, use the right tool for the right job.

Don’t waste space

When it comes to designing a dashboard its always good to be aware of wasted pixels. You have a limited real estate to work with so each element has to earn its place. Well it’s the same with stories. Review your story. Look at each story point. Is it contributing to the plot? If not, take it out. Each story point has to justify its inclusion in the overall story.

Use Dashboards in stories

I tend to always publish dashboards and very rarely ever use a vanilla viz. The reason for this is that I want to control the layout as much as possible. I want to control the position of all the elements within the story point so using dashboards is essential for this. Sizing of dashboards is easy as you can select the size of the dashboard to fit the story; you then know how each story point will look in the final story.

Remember to share the correct link

When you get the share link from your published story make sure that it is the link for the first story point and not mid way through. You don’t want someone coming in halfway through your carefully constructed story.

Storytelling is a fantastic way to share your data. You can tell detailed stories within complex data that otherwise might be hard for someone to understand. To present data in a different way, not just bare numbers and statistics or charts, but the underlying stories behind the data. I think this sums it up best.