An Exceptional Story with Exceptional Data

Benjamin Morris, a writer for arguably the best computational journalism publication, fivethirtyeight, published “Lionel Messi is Impossible” which describes in words, statistics and charts why Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players in the world. Even if you’re not a soccer/football fan, the article is worth reading because it’s one of the finest examples of synthesizing data and a story to convey a point I’ve read in a very long time.

Data is one of the most powerful ingredients to supporting a point of view. It’s one of the reasons I publish data analysis on this blog. But data alone isn’t enough - not nearly enough - to be compelling. The story woven from the data makes an article or post or argument successful, not the other way around.

Morris’ article is superb for three reasons. First, each chart succinctly conveys a single point. The charts are simple but the analysis underpinning them is not. Achieving that simplicity from complexity isn’t easy.

Second, and fortunately so, the data present a very clear and consistent story. Each plot depicts Messi’s exceptional performance as a striker compared to his peers. Without such an exceptional career and statistics, this story would have been far less compelling. In other words, the data clearly supports the narrative.

Third, Morris openly discusses the blind spots of each analysis and has anticipated the readers’ questions himself, which is a terrific way of managing doubt. Two thirds of the way through the article, for example, Morris changes the analysis from Messi the individual, to Messi the team player. “By this point, it should be evident that Messi has at least a little bit of skill. But there’s still heavy lifting to do: We have to show that he actually makes his team better.”

Simply put, “Lionel Messi Is Impossible” is a terrific example of great computational journalism. And I’m hopeful that this kind of thinking, presenting and story-telling will become much more common both in the press, but also within companies and startups.

There are a huge number of ways to deploy this skill within companies: whittling user stories and personas from data to improve product design, carving insights from sales and marketing performance data to illustrate best practices, and distilling the success of customers into white papers and sales collateral.

We’re just at the beginning of sophisticated, data-supported story-telling. But it’s a trend that is improving the way we communicate and support our arguments. Instead of telling and opining and pontificating, we’re showing and exhibiting and revealing, which is ultimately, a more powerful way to tell a story.

Published 2014-07-02 in Trends  Data Analysis  Best Practices 


I am partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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