Can You REALLY Tell Compelling Stories with Data?

Gretchen ReeseDecember 11, 2020

Is data storytelling really that important? This week on Fleet FYIs, Lanelle Duke is back to speak about the importance of telling stories with your data – from pairing it with strong visuals to being able to explain your data to all levels of your organization. Tune in to learn more:


Here’s a quick summary of my conversation with Lanelle:

Your data can tell a story – but it’s not just that it can tell one, it’s how one tells it. In larger organizations, it’s critical to be able to explain data to management at every level from multiple angles. But don’t just take my word for it – here’s what Lanelle had to say:

  • With so much data available at our fingertips – there is no way that the average person can consume it all without help.
  • Being able to tell a story with your data is more important than ever.
  • Strong data storytelling requires engaging visuals,

    and
  • demonstrating the value of your fleet as budgets get tighter increases the necessity of strong stories being told from the data you can extract.

Lanelle’s most memorable quotes:

“Being able to demonstrate results your team is achieving and communicating the positive impact it’s having on all levels of the organization is critical. I see that as a core component of a fleet manager’s job.”

“As budgets get tighter data storytelling will become more and more critical. Fleet managers need to preserve and protect their budgets and demonstrate the value of a well-run fleet and what it brings to the organization and the bottom line.”

Lanelle Duke, Can You Really Tell Compelling Stories with Data? Introduction to Data Storytelling with Lanelle Duke | Utilimarc Fleet FYIs Podcast

Episode eight was full of interesting ways to make your data’s story stand out. If you’d like to have a listen, it’s available to stream on all major platforms – but if reading is more your style, take a look at this episode’s transcript below:


Can You Really Tell Compelling Stories with Data? Introduction to Data Storytelling with Lanelle Duke  | Fleet FYIs: Episode 8

Gretchen Reese (00:04):

Hey there, Gretchen here. Welcome to Fleet FYIs, the weekly podcast by Utilimarc that makes fleet management strategy smarter by bringing to you nearly two decades worth of data insights, industry hot topics, and expert analysts together in conversation. Our aim is to help you better understand your data and your key metrics by hosting candid conversations with some of the industry’s finest.

Gretchen Reese (00:27):

But before we begin, if this is your first time listening to our podcast, thanks for hitting the play button. I’m so glad you decided to come along for the ride and have a listen. Once you’ve finished today’s episode, if you could take a few minutes to leave us a review, we’d really appreciate it. Give us a rating, tell us what you liked, or perhaps what you didn’t, or you can leave us a comment or a question about what we’ve covered today. Also, if you have a topic that you’d love for us to cover, but we haven’t touched on yet, let us know. We’d be happy to go over it in detail in a later episode. Sound good? All right. Let’s get back to the show.

Gretchen Reese (01:05):

Hey there, and welcome to another episode of Fleet FYIs. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems crazy that we’re already in the second week of December. Now, by this time I am full swing into holiday mode – my oven in my kitchen is getting an absolute workout from baking loads of holiday treats. And if I’m being honest, it’s always been my favorite time of year, and not just because it’s a cliche and the song lyrics tell you it’s the most wonderful time of the year and you’re supposed to be joyful during the holiday season.

Gretchen Reese (01:37):

But with that being said, this idea that a certain time of year, or in the case of this episode a certain topic, can invoke a feeling, an emotion or retain the attention of an audience is an interesting point to explore. And often it’s because it surrounds a really good story.

Gretchen Reese (01:56):

With the holidays in mind that usually surrounds some form of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, but in this case you could tell stories with words or sometimes even data. But when we’re asking about telling stories with data, calling it data storytelling for a succinct term, what do we really mean by that?

Gretchen Reese (02:16):

In our case, data storytelling is the practice of building a narrative around a set of data and it’s accompanying visualizations to help convey the meaning of that data in a powerful and compelling fashion. As a couple of examples, this could be through a PowerPoint deck, or it could be a graph representation of complex data sets that perhaps only your analysts typically have access to. But to delve further into this topic, we’ve brought Lanelle Duke back to the show. This is her sweet spot in the realm of what she does as creating a product often means that you’re telling stories with the data that you collect.

Gretchen Reese (02:53):

Now, this could be in the form of artificial intelligence or machine learning, and Lanelle and I were chatting about this in a previous episode, which, if you haven’t listened to by now, you absolutely should after this one is wrapped up because it’s full of super great information that I can tell you, you don’t want to miss.

Gretchen Reese (03:09):

But it can also take form in something a little simpler, like data visualization, even though in truth it’s not as simple as it seems, though it looks like it could be. But without any further hesitation, I’d love to introduce her to you again, because I think she’s going to bring some really great insights to this show that is going to be really helpful for so many people out there. So if you’re ready, let’s get into it.

Gretchen Reese (03:35):

Hey, Lanelle, welcome back to the Fleet FYIs podcast. I’m so glad you could come back today.

Lanelle Duke (03:39):

Hi, Gretchen, thanks for having me on today.

Gretchen Reese (03:43):

I wanted to start off this episode by talking about stories. And since you’ve been in product management for quite a while, I know that telling stories with data is super important, not just to you, but to many other people in the product management field. And that’s what the episode is predominantly about.

Gretchen Reese (04:00):

When we’re looking at telling stories with data, we all know the components of a good story. If you’re telling one to your friends, you need a compelling introduction, you need an engaging plot with a hook at just the right moment, followed by a bit of a resolution or maybe an ending point. But data I think is unique in that it’s not always that simple. Do you think you could kick us off by giving us a little overview as to how storytelling with data actually works?

Lanelle Duke (04:29):

Sure, I’d be glad to. In the digital age, more and more data is being collected and technology has evolved to offer us more ways to access it. Right now in the moment, think about how reliant we all are on our cell phones. We are constantly on them and they, they’re an amazing source of data and we have that all at our fingertips, so we’re all really getting used to that.

Lanelle Duke (04:55):

As a result, both in a personal and professional setting, we are all being bombarded with information. So while it’s great to have all of that at your fingertips, there’s just so much data that we really just can’t absorb it all, so as content has grown, our attention spans have become the limiting factor.

Lanelle Duke (05:16):

We simply can’t absorb all that information, everything that’s in front of us each day, and so it’s really a battle for attention. And then when you add numbers into the mix, it can get even harder to get and keep an audience’s attention. The best presenters don’t give a presentation, they tell a story. People remember stories, especially ones that are told well.

Lanelle Duke (05:41):

Equally as important, stories can be retold and that’s rarely done with a presentation. You may retell a story to a colleague, but you’re probably not going to take someone’s PowerPoint deck and give that presentation yourself. That’s why it’s extremely important when you are presenting numbers to turn them into a compelling story that will resonate with your audience. Doing this well will help you develop supporters of your point of view, which is exactly what you’re trying to do.

Lanelle Duke (06:10):

One other thing I’d say that I think has changed a lot over the years is using and working with data used to be reserved for analysts and power users. Those were the only people who had access to those systems and who had to know how to crunch numbers. Now, data is more prevalent and the tools and systems that consume that data are evolving. These factors make data more accessible to everyone and making it easier to use.

Gretchen Reese (06:39):

Oh, absolutely. When you’re talking about messages and being bombarded with them, I think we were talking about this in a previous episode where, I think maybe it might’ve been New York that was brought up, but it had me think of Times Square – where you could even just walk into one small corner of the world and instantly be hit with thousands and thousands of messages. And that’s just talking about, I mean, from the perspective of billboards only, you get thousands and thousands of messages per day. So when you add data into that and all of these eloquent data sets, like you said, where analysts and power users were really the only people that had access to it, it’s kind of an interesting shift, don’t you think?

Lanelle Duke (07:21):

I do. And your Times Square example is a perfect example of being bombarded with messages.

Gretchen Reese (07:30):

It’s overwhelming, I think. Oh my gosh. Marketing maven heaven, but it’s a little overwhelming. So what would you say then would be the most compelling story that you can either say is currently being told with data or that you’d like to see being told with data? If you can pick one.

Lanelle Duke (07:49):

Just one? It’s difficult because there’s so many. I think in general terms, the story that fleet administrators need to tell what data will be unique to them, their organization, and the operational and strategic goals they are accountable for.

Lanelle Duke (08:08):

In fleet there are so many interesting areas to focus on, the stories that need to be totally different based on the individual telling the story. However, I have seen a number of interesting ones that relied heavily on data over the years.

Lanelle Duke (08:22):

For example, one fleet manager I worked with wanted to put a speeding policy in place for each type of vehicle at his fleet. The goal was to prove out the monetary savings associated with driving at an optimal speed. For his analysis and his testing, he used telematics data, fuel data and information from his fleet management system as key input.

Lanelle Duke (08:47):

Another person that I worked with matched up an asset’s cost to operate with the revenue that asset was generating to see which vehicles and which jobs were profitable and which ones were not.

Lanelle Duke (09:01):

And then a number of fleet managers I know have run idle reduction initiatives and driver safety projects. I’ve also seen an uptick in the focus of fleet rightsizing and optimal vehicle replacement strategies.

Lanelle Duke (09:15):

In all of these examples, the fleet managers must use data to put policies and processes in place, and then also to measure the results and prove out the savings.

Gretchen Reese (09:26):

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think your examples on safety and rightsizing, they’re right on, because that’s what people are focusing on now, right? You always want your drivers to be safe or really any equipment operators to be safe, and you want to make sure that your fleet’s the right size. So I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there.

Lanelle Duke (09:46):

I think… Just to follow on on that, I think that’s one of the things about the evolution of data and our use of it, was when we first started out, we had to do kind of the more easy things with data because we were just getting used to it. But as we’ve started to evolve over the years, we’re now starting to focus on more sophisticated kinds of data analysis, like rightsizing and vehicle replacement strategies.

Gretchen Reese (10:11):

Yeah, absolutely. So along those lines, do you see any trends or technologies coming out in the future or recent or even far off that will provide new types of data and different types of stories that could potentially be told?

Lanelle Duke (10:27):

In fleet we’ve been talking about electrification for years and years. It’s been slow to come, but I think it’s finally here. I believe you’ll see a big push over the next two to five years to use data to tell compelling stories in this area. Some of the questions fleet teams will want to answer will be, do EVs make sense for my fleet? If so, where and how? What gains am I seeing? There’s many questions that can be answered and there will be some pretty major reporting requirements for the planning and implementing out of DB strategy. And then also to track the results. I think some great stories can be told here.

Lanelle Duke (11:08):

Camera technology is also becoming increasingly prevalent and more widely adopted. It feels like we’re at the very beginning of exploration in this area, what can be done using the data collected from cameras, how it can be combined with other data sources to provide helpful insights, is very interesting. Driver safety and accident investigation are two big important areas that come to mind.

Gretchen Reese (11:35):

What do you think, just out of curiosity, what do you think is going to be the biggest pushback with these new technologies? Like EV, for example.

Lanelle Duke (11:41):

I think one of the biggest pushbacks is going to be honestly the infrastructure for being able to charge EVs. I think that’s really one of the big things. And then also at this point in time, being able to find electric vehicles that can do or perform the specific tasks or jobs that are required of that vehicle. So I think over the coming years, you’re going to be seeing some major evolution in those areas.

Gretchen Reese (12:15):

Yeah, I think so too. So what do you think then fleet managers would have to think about if they, say for example, focus on telling the stories surrounding these topics you’ve just mentioned, like electrification or electric vehicles in general, or drive cam technology?

Lanelle Duke (12:35):

Oftentimes I think getting buy-in for initiatives like these that I’ve mentioned can be a hard sell. Executives may not want to fund these types of projects. They probably think they’re too expensive. And the field, and when I say the field, I mean the branch managers and the drivers, are also most likely not going to want to support them.

Lanelle Duke (12:58):

Things you normally hear from them, are we don’t have time, we’re too busy to take on another thing. In order for you to be successful, you’re going to need engagement from both types of these audiences. And what’s important to remember is, the story you tell will look different depending on the group you are communicating with. However, the goals will be the thing to gain understanding of your position and to develop advocates. Your audience needs to believe in what you’re doing and want to help you to succeed.

Lanelle Duke (13:31):

If you can create a compelling story and explain what’s in it for them using data, you’ll get them on your side. It’s important, but it can be difficult too. It’s hard to create a compelling case without using data to get your point across, and pulling up a dense spreadsheet or putting a bunch of numbers on a presentation slide isn’t going to get it done. You’ll lose their attention and their interest. That’s why creating stories is so important.

Lanelle Duke (13:59):

Being able to demonstrate results your team is achieving and communicating the positive impact it’s having on all levels of the organization is critical. I see that as a core component of a fleet manager’s job.

Gretchen Reese (14:12):

Absolutely. When you’re talking about being able to demonstrate results and PowerPoint decks, I mean, I’m sure we’ve all sat through, and not just me and you, but pretty much everyone out there in a professional industry, has sat through a PowerPoint deck that feels like it’s gone on and on and on, and just kept droning about the same topic, and it wasn’t visually engaging.

Gretchen Reese (14:33):

But when we’re talking about stories told with data, at least that I’ve seen, the strongest stories are often paired with compelling visuals. So could you tell me about how preparing the right type of visual with your data story could either maybe make it or break it, so to say?

Lanelle Duke (14:52):

Sure, yeah, I’d be glad to do that. The first thing to do is to begin with the end in mind. What do you want your audience to know and why? What do you need from them? And what do you want them to take away from your presentation? Incorporate data that supports your key points and develop a narrative around it.

Lanelle Duke (15:14):

It’s important to start with a big picture and frame your data communication within it. When telling your story, begin by illustrating the problem you were trying to solve and share key reasons why it’s important. Be sure to pair your story with compelling data visualization. You’re really trying to paint a picture.

Lanelle Duke (15:34):

When we tell a story and see an impactful image to support that story, we can remember what we heard and remember what we saw. This is a very effective combination. Think back to a presenter you listened to and thought did a really good job. You probably even remember what they were speaking about. Why is that? I guarantee they weren’t using text heavy slides and reading from them word for word.

Lanelle Duke (16:00):

The last thing I’d want to say about data storytelling is that it always doesn’t come in the form of a presentation. For example, well constructed email can be extremely effective and might be the appropriate channel for your audience.

Gretchen Reese (16:16):

I totally agree. And you want to know something kind of funny? You brought up one of my horror stories that I used to experience in university, and even years prior to that, rather frequently, and that was the paragraph of text on a PowerPoint slide and reading it word for word for word. It would drive me crazy. And it’s just like, okay, you have the text there, I can read it. Give me a visual or a couple of high-level overarching points so that you can really illustrate the story for me and then you pay more attention to the person speaking rather than the slides they have behind them.

Gretchen Reese (16:57):

Because if your slides are too busy and the visual isn’t compelling, you kind of lose half or more of your audience just by doing that, which is crazy.

Lanelle Duke (17:09):

I agree. And I think we’ve all had sat through a presentation like that, whether it was in college or in the workplace, we’ve all seen that and no one likes it. So this is an opportunity to make sure you’re not doing that to other people.

Gretchen Reese (17:25):

Right. I just think it’s so surprising how much that actually still happens. But getting back on track, when we’re looking a at storytelling, because like we said there’s a couple of components in there, it’s not just a story you’re telling, it’s not just the eloquent data sets themselves, and it’s not just the visuals, because each on their own potentially they could be effective, but they’re much more effective when they’re all combined together in a strategic way. So how would you say that you think data storytelling could aid in, say, a fleet management strategy?

Lanelle Duke (17:57):

Well, I think two reasons come to mind. The first, as I mentioned above in those examples, there’s a lot of interesting and exciting areas in fleet management to improve efficiency, save money, increase driver safety, and reduce our carbon footprint. These are all great data storytelling opportunities.

Lanelle Duke (18:21):

The second, as budgets get tighter data storytelling will become more and more critical. Fleet managers need to preserve and protect their budgets and demonstrate the value of a well-run fleet and what it brings to the organization and the bottom line. The good news is that we are in a great position to learn how to tell these stories effectively.

Gretchen Reese (18:42):

If you could give me a couple of ways that you could effectively tell these stories just off the top of your head, like rapid fire, what would you say they’d be?

Lanelle Duke (18:52):

I think just really to understand your data, you need to be able to interact with it and use it to inform your strategy, and then also as the foundation for the presentation that you’re going to give or the point that you want to advocate for, for sure. And then in order to do that, you really need to have the right systems and tools to support you in that work, because it can be very frustrating otherwise if you don’t.

Gretchen Reese (19:21):

Speaking of systems and tools, I know you’re in product management and product development and you work a lot with software, so could you tell me, is there a way that software can integrate with all of these data sets to, say, create a regular and routine storytelling process?

Lanelle Duke (19:38):

You are so right, software is key and it’s impossible for the average person to do it without it. You really need to have the software to help you with the storytelling process. The good news is that these types of business intelligence platforms have been gaining steam over the past couple of years. However, the trick is finding the software analysis platforms and tools that incorporate all the data sources together and can also produce the helpful insights that are easily accessible. You might be able to find one, but potentially not the other.

Lanelle Duke (20:20):

The systems need to be sophisticated enough to include all types of data a customer needs and uses, but also needs to be simple enough for them to use and draw conclusions from. That’s why I’m happy to be working on Utilimarc’s BI platform, it takes many, many data streams in and creates interesting analysis and visualizations that really helps our customers tell compelling stories with their data.

Gretchen Reese (20:47):

That’s so awesome to hear. I’m aware that we can’t touch on everything data storytelling right now in however long it’s been, 30 minutes maybe, because it’s a complex topic, which I’m sure you know, so there’s just no way you can get into all of it in one episode. So is there anything else you’d like to add about data storytelling that we haven’t yet covered today?

Lanelle Duke (21:09):

I think I have a few tips that might help people get started as they write their first story.

Gretchen Reese (21:15):

Awesome.

Lanelle Duke (21:16):

The first one is knowing your audience. You can miss the mark if you don’t take them into account. The type of story you should tell often depends on who you’re talking to. For example, if you are presenting to a CEO or Board of Directors, that’s going to look very different than if you’re talking to managers or drivers. The points you are trying to get across and the numbers you share will be very different. You need to tailor your message and approach to resonate with each of these groups.

Lanelle Duke (21:49):

Next thing that I would say is, less is more. Don’t clutter your presentation slides up with lots of words and numbers. Instead, go very minimal with a single picture, a simple data visualization or a few words. Provide the context with your talking points. Make you the star of the presentation, not the slides.

Lanelle Duke (22:13):

Three, limit and be consistent with the use of fonts and color. Using a lot of different ones creates noise and distracts people from your message. When you’re done with your presentation, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Would you be interested in what you have to say if you were them? Have you made a compelling case? If not, rework it. If you get stuck, think about an effective presentation you listened to. What about it made it appealing? How can you adapt your presentation to use some of those same approaches?

Lanelle Duke (22:49):

If you can consistently do a good job telling your story, people will expect that from you and will look forward to hearing what you have to say the next time.

Gretchen Reese (22:59):

Yeah, you are so right. Lanelle, just in case anyone would like to connect with you to continue the conversation after today’s episode, what’s the best place to find you?

Lanelle Duke (23:09):

Well, you were right earlier when you said that it’s a complex topic and there’s lots to talk about, and you can’t squeeze that all into one podcast episode. So if anyone is listening today and has questions about how to tell stories with data, or just wants to talk about it further and share what they’re doing, please, please, please reach out to me on LinkedIn. I am really interested in continuing this conversation and would be glad to talk with anyone who would like to talk about it.

Gretchen Reese (23:37):

That’s awesome. And Lanelle, thanks again for jumping on the podcast episode. I really appreciate your time.

Lanelle Duke (23:43):

Thanks, Gretchen.

Gretchen Reese (23:46):

All right, so when we’re talking about data and the ability to tell stories with data sets that for members of your organization in all levels of management, personally, I think Lanelle hit the nail on the head here when she mentioned the need for a compelling visual to accompany your presentation, or for that matter, any story that you’re telling with data. And like she said, when we’re thinking about some of the best stories we’ve ever heard, or perhaps some of the best stories we’ve ever told, odds are, is that you’ll have some sort of a visual representation to accompany them. Whether that be a PowerPoint deck like Lanelle was talking about, a software product perhaps that can give you graft visuals there, or maybe even some crazy hand gesture. Who knows? But the thing is, is data storytelling is no different and when done right, it can be very compelling.

Gretchen Reese (24:40):

But I’d love to hear from you. What about data or telling stories with data do you find to be the most compelling or perhaps even the most difficult? Is it the creation of visual assets to aid in telling your story, or maybe the ability to turn data and numbers into an engaging plot? Because I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not the easiest thing in the world and sometimes it takes a real talent to do that.

Gretchen Reese (25:03):

I want you to get in touch and let me know what you think. You can take a screenshot of this episode on your favorite podcasting platform and share it to LinkedIn using the hashtag #UtilimarcFleetFYIs, so we can see what you think and how you’re working with data within your organization to tell its story.

Gretchen Reese (25:20):

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say and what you have to add to the conversation, because we always scroll through the Utilimarc Fleet FYIs hashtag to see what’s going on and what you guys are thinking.

Gretchen Reese (25:30):

We’ll be back next week with another episode, but if you’re looking for more content before then, as always, you can find us on our website, www.utilimarc.com, spelled out U-T-I-L-I-M-A-R-C dot com, or you can find us on our social media on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube with the user handle @Utilimarc.

Gretchen Reese (25:51):

But before I wrap up this episode, I just wanted to let you know that we’re always looking for interesting topics and people to chat about and to chat to on Fleet FYIs. If you, a colleague, or someone you know would be interested in chatting about all things fleet, send us an email at marketing@utilimarc.com for more information.

Gretchen Reese (26:09):

With that being said, that’s all from me until next Thursday, when we’re back with our last episode for 2020. It is almost Christmas and it is almost the new year, so we will be back the first week of January with a fresh season for you. So until then, I’ll catch you later.

If you or someone you know is interested in being a guest on Fleet FYIs, please email our content manager with your request.


Gretchen Reese

Content Manager

Gretchen Reese is the content manager at Utilimarc. She has experience in global and strategic marketing, previously working as a copywriter and content specialist for a London marketing agency and freelancing in multiple niches. See more from Gretchen


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