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Groundlings and Princes: Data Storytelling Like Shakespeare

Tom HutchisonMarch 07, 2019

Today, we study William Shakespeare as high art. Every year high schoolers read his plays. His sonnets are a staple of college literature courses, and philosophy majors look for kernels of human truth among the conflicts and the loves he portrayed in his works. To learn Shakespeare is to become refined and erudite. Yet, in reality, he had more commercial interests.

Shakespeare was a working writer. He needed lots people to come to the theater. That’s how he made money, so all of his plays – the comedies, the tragedies and histories alike – included elements that would appeal to both princes and groundlings. Noblemen of the time, sitting in the premium seats in the upper levels of the theater, would prefer the soaring rhetoric and mature examinations of deep moral questions. The groundlings – those uneducated, unwashed masses standing on the floor in front of the stage – came for slapstick comedy and gratuitous violence. He wrote dirty jokes and corny puns. He used romance and rage in equal measure to attract the widest possible audience.

As a data professional, you’re like Shakespeare, in that you’re probably telling a story because that’s part of your job. Hopefully, you’re using charts and graphs instead of sword play and bawdy humor, but one consideration is the same. You have to think about how you support different audiences with your story. For example, it may interest executives as well as more tactical practitioners.

Your leaders will approach your story from a strategic perspective. They’re looking for information that demonstrates how well the company is doing with respect to objectives. Generally, these are high-level visualizations that indicate direction and the likelihood of reaching corporate goals. They need to know what to focus on among a wide array of metrics, so giving too much detail forces them to spend time on topics that don’t require it. If your story serves them well, your leaders will be able to quickly identify areas that require attention so they can dedicate resources where they do the most good.

Domain experts will have interest in your story too, but their focus will be more tactical. Giving them a perspective on everything that’s going on isn’t that helpful, because their responsibility lies in only one area. They’ll also need more data so they can develop a deeper understanding of their processes and the resulting performance. Giving practitioners aggregated data in your story will frustrate them. They need detail and precision. Think spreadsheets instead of graphs. If your story serves them well, they’ll identify many small changes that add up to significant improvements in performance and effectiveness.

You probably have other discrete audiences who need customized views of data within your stories. If your organization aligns geographically, then most people will only be interested in their local region. Your finance people probably care about different things than marketers. Legal and compliance teams are concerned about data that your customer service representatives don’t worry about. Your sales people have their own set of metrics. Each of these audiences are important parts of your company and they’ll all be interested in your story and its underlying data, but you have to think about how you present it in the context of the story to make it relevant to them.

Hopefully, you don’t have to deal with the class distinctions and economic disparities that Shakespeare experienced in his audiences. Societies today are more egalitarian, so we don’t see those stark contrasts between princes and groundlings anymore. But much like Shakespeare, you do have to prepare for different audiences. Teams and individuals within your company care about different things and presenting them all with the same information probably serves none of them well. Consider how you might provide different angles on your data and one day your stories might be studied as art.