Storytelling in Assessment: Compelling Ways to Share Data

October 17th 2017

Before we begin dig into using storytelling in assessment, do me a favor and just think about your favorite story. This could be a book, a movie, a television show, an anecdote from a friend or family member—whatever first comes to mind. Think for a moment about what it is about that story that captures your attention, engages you, and drives your imagination. Think about what it is that makes you recall this story so quickly. As you’re thinking, consider your reactions to the story, the emotions that you feel, and the real power that story has in your memory.

Now, compare that experience to a meeting where you talked about assessment data.

You likely laughed in your head. The first time our director of Analytics & Research, Sherry Woosley, said that to me, I laughed out loud. Sharing assessment data with others can be a challenge. For those of us who work with assessment data, we’ve all been there at one point or another. Whether it’s the presentation that is entirely text-heavy slides, the binder of data that never seems to end, or the most painful charts to decipher you have ever seen—when we’re in these situations, we lose the big picture.

Now, if this happens to those of us who work with assessment data on a regular basis and love assessment more than most, imagine what it must be like for our colleagues on campus who do not enjoy data, are new to it, or simply find it intimated or uncomfortable.

Think: if the point of our assessment work is to drive action and change for the better on our campuses, what good is it if this is the reaction it creates?

Storytelling in Assessment

This is where storytelling comes in as a tool for sharing assessment. If you think about assessment data, it is often drowning in research language and buried in methodology. Many times, we focus on the little pieces or the individual data points. When this happens, we lose context and fail to frame the data in a way that resonates with our audience.

Now, back to the little thought exercise we used to open this blog—let’s contrast the above horror story of sharing assessment data with storytelling. When someone is telling a story, they are in essence painting a picture for an audience. They are creating a visual in their audience’s head about what is going on, often using plot, subjects, scene, and sensory details. The best stories are told in a way that engages the listener from start to finish. We may not remember the fine details, but you can recall the overarching theme or the big picture. This is why your favorite story is your favorite, and this is why you still think of it after so many years.

So, for many reasons, taking a storytelling approach to sharing assessment data makes sense. Stories engage audiences, connect assessment to existing knowledge, provide a structure we can all relate to, and have the power to show us information (current situation, parties affected, potential outcomes, motivations, etc.) rather than simply telling us.

Using storytelling in assessment can be a compelling way to share your data and motivate others to embrace your findings.

Challenges to Storytelling

Of course, there are challenges that must be acknowledged to using storytelling in assessment as a method of communicating data. It is research, after all. All of the particulars—from the response rates to the methodology to the survey sample and more—all matter greatly, and not just to the “data nerds.” It is important to make sure you aren’t cherry picking individual pieces that fit the story you want to tell. Even if you manage to tell a compelling and thought-provoking story, it will mean nothing if you lack credibility.

At the end of the day, it boils down to doing quality work as an assessment professional. If you know your data inside and out, are prepared to answer questions as they come up, and carefully consider your audience, you can tell a rich and compelling data story. And, your audience will have confidence that your assessment results are solid.

Our Goal: Action

We want folks on campus to use assessment data to benefit students. Whether it is reinforcing existing practices or driving changes, we assess because we want to make a difference. We want to improve the lives and experiences of our students. And, if using storytelling in assessment is one way to achieve our goals, why would we pass it up?

So, whether it’s designing data visuals that make good use of best practices, going through multiple interactions of your work with colleagues, thinking through the needs of your audience, or making sure you data slides are not a rainbow of clashing colors, take the time to think through the underlying story of your data. Consider: what is the one thing you want your audience to remember, and make sure they do.

Are you reading this and wondering how to build visuals that support the rich data stories on your campus? Then check out Sherry Woosley’s recent webinar that provides practical tips and resources for anyone looking to add a splash of seduction to data visuals. Link coming soon.