“Storytelling” is something marketing experts have been talking about for years, as a better way to communicate brands, products and what sets businesses apart. It’s now a recognized, tried and true approach, and one that has taken a foothold due to its effectiveness. Our customer experiences online are, in large part, shaped by “stories” that marketers have set up for us to more easily get to know what they’re selling and eventually buy it.

Because of this success, storytelling is now quickly making its way into business vernacular, specifically with respect to data. With so much data being collected over the course of doing normal business, we need better ways to communicate that data (the stuff we’re “selling”), in such a way that it can be easily consumed (“the stuff they’re buying”).

Technology is providing us gigantic leaps in data visualization capability for business writ large, but how best to leverage these new capabilities in a way that allows us to easily grasp the information is still — and probably always will be — evolving. The same is true in the planning world.

In project management our stories tend to be question-driven and are similar between initiatives yet different depending on where we’re at in the process or at what level we want to view the information. Here are some examples.

Project-level Conception/Initiation/Planning/Design

  1. What is our plan and are there options to choose from?
  2. Who is responsible for what?
  3. How long do we think it will take?
  4. What will it cost?
  5. How will we measure ourselves?

Project-level Execution/Performance/Monitoring:

  1. How are we progressing?
  2. Where are we falling behind?
  3. What can we do to fix the issues popping up?
  4. How are we tracking against estimates?
  5. Are there any new decisions to be made based on what has been learned so far?

Project-level Close:

  1. How did we measure against our estimates?
  2. What are the occurrences that we can take forward in our business to learn from, and improve?

Portfolio-level:

  1. Where are my risks and financial exposures the largest?
  2. What can be fast-tracked, if necessary?
  3. When can I expect revenue, and at what scale?
  4. Do I have any patterns of success or delays across my portfolio?

These questions — or stories — are high-level and not at all-inclusive. They’re also where a manager might start when he or she begins to design the communications plan (otherwise known as “data visualizations”).

Often, we jump straight into attempting to squish many of these things into a single visual, either because we’re asked to or because we’re driven by an inherent attempt to “wow” our audience. By lumping lots of varying data into a chart, however, we end up making two big mistakes:

First, we try to deliver too many options of focus, which slows viewers down when they’re reading. What we do is deliberately camouflage each story. To absorb each dimension of data, we have to bring forth each one separately in our mind’s eye to allow people to consume them together. This is difficult to do, so why not isolate each one from the get-go into its own visual? If we do this, the information our audience needs to absorb will become simpler and clearer, which is what we want!

Second, Scott Berinato quotes the psychologist Robyn Dawes in his book, Good Charts: “…Cognitive capacity shuts down in the absence of a story.” If we cram a bunch of different dimensions of data into one visual, we’re diluting the narrative of each. If, instead, we extract those dimensions into separate pages/images, our readers will be better able to quickly grasp the information they need to read the stories.

As communicators, we first need to uncover what it is that our audience should know — what story they need to be told (using the data) and then create a visual for each (at least).

I love the story-time image above because it’s not too far off when it comes to business. Although our audiences aren’t children, they’re also not intimately familiar with the project data that we’re often presenting. We, as the project managers and schedulers, eat, sleep, and breathe this data, but our sponsors and actors often must learn what it is they are looking at, to some extent, each time you present to them.

On top of that, our audiences often suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, when it comes to plan communications. They like to tell us what they want to see, even though they have no expertise in the fields of communications, graphic design, data visualization or planning. If you’re working on gaining knowledge in those areas, don’t hide it. At some point, when you feel confident enough that you can make positive changes, propose a concerted effort for improvement in your plan communications.

How do you like to tell stories with your data? Share your ideas with the MPUG community in the comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OnePager blog here.