Editors Note: This is the first part of six-part series on Storytelling with Data featuring author, industry thought leader, data visualization expert Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. Our conversation with her begins here.

Data can give companies a powerful competitive advantage, but only when it’s presented in a compelling way that makes it easy to glean valuable insights.

Industry thought leader Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic called this process “storytelling with data.” Knaflic runs the Storytelling with Data website and recently published a data visualization guide for business professionals with the same title. “Storytelling with Data” (the book) is already an Amazon.com best seller.

Visual Analytics Expert

Knaflic developed deep expertise in visual analytics through her work with some of the most data-driven companies on the planet. iCharts recently met with Knaflic to discuss visual analytics best practices, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing her perspective—in her own words—on the following topics:

  • How to approach data visualization as a design challenge.
  • Why you must understand your audience in order to create effective data visualizations.
  • The do’s and don’ts of data visualization.
  • How to adopt visual analytics within your enterprise.


From Banking to Google to Data Visualization

My career started off in credit risk management in banking, before the subprime crisis, and before anybody really knew what credit risk management was. Banking, if you think about it, is one sector that’s been data-driven for a really long time. It’s one of the first industries that had what you consider Big Data, when you think about things like credit card transactions and so forth.

I went from there into a space that’s been historically much less data driven in H.R., and I joined Google on the people analytics team. People analytics at Google is a team that’s embedded in Google’s H.R. organization. The goal there is to try to help ensure that people decisions—decisions about employees or future employees—are data-driven. I joined when the team was small and had just been formed, which gave me the opportunity to work on a ton of cool stuff. I got to learn about things like what makes managers effective, how to build a dream team, and what drives attrition.

I also got the opportunity at Google to develop a course on data visualization. This was initially part of an internal program we were building within people operations, but it got some broader interest, so we actually ended up expanding it to Google broadly. That meant I got the opportunity to travel to offices around the world and teach people how to communicate effectively with data.

For me, it was really interesting to see salespeople and engineers sitting side by side in these courses. I came to realize that the skills needed in this area are fundamental. They aren’t specific to any given role, nor are they specific to Google. Other organizations started reaching out to me, wanting to me to go teach their teams and their organizations how to communicate effectively with data. That typically takes the form of workshops, with a half-day or a full-day session where I’ll sit with a team and we’ll cover the foundational lessons on how to effectively show data and how to leverage that power of story to get your data to stick with your audience. Over time, I’ve codified these lessons, and that, plus a whole lot of time and work, eventually led to my new book, “Storytelling with Data.”

Check back with the iCharts blog to learn more about how to understand your audience to create effective data visualizations, what you should (and shouldn’t) include in your visualizations, and how to improve your data visualization skills. We’ll also be posting a video with highlights of our conversation with Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic.

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