Wednesday Workshops: Storytelling with Data

Data wrangler and pivot table queen Liz Allen helped workshop participants think about moving from data to narrative.

Telling one’s own research story is one of the most important—but difficult—things a scientist can do. One challenge for researchers is finding answers in their research, but conveying those answers to an audience can be an even greater challenge.

For Elizabeth Allen, telling a story is at the core of what she does. As part of Virginia Tech’s Institute of Policy and Governance, Allen works with applied research–and that comes with creating a narrative that is easily understandable. Her background in and love for Excel allows her to get a complex dataset narrowed down into simpler terms. She shared those skills at her Center for Communicating Science workshop on campus April 4, 2018, and again for the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program in Roanoke April 5.

“Get into the framework of your own research and think about how you usually present it,” Allen said. “What challenges do you encounter when managing and presenting data?”

Her process—what she calls the “Principles of Storytelling”—can be broken down into four steps: understanding the audience, building the narrative, engaging with the data, and getting to the point.

“It’s a process that can be applied beyond just science, and it shows you how to separate the noise from the good stuff,” she said.

Excel tools like PivotTable and Flash Fill can help manage data and bring a presentation into a cleaner format or display it in a more effective way. Allen encourages becoming familiar with software tools to save time and energy in creating the narrative. These tools often go unused because many students and researchers are unaware of how to use them.

“I often feel, especially when I talk to graduate or undergrad students, they just don’t know how or have never been shown how to make a more efficient data table,” she explained. “These are things that are important to a researcher but that don’t always seem to be discussed as much as other aspects of research.”

Allen hopes that aspiring scientists learn that no story is completed alone. Research remains a collaborative effort, and asking for help on how to convey that one’s research story is no exception. Storytelling, even with quantitative data, can cross boundaries just by allowing it to be seen through different eyes.

By Nicole Elbin, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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