Can you remember the last time you were moved to tears by an article about the stock market? (Other than the crash of 2008, of course.) Or scanned your competitor’s SEC filing and had yourself a nice big belly laugh because of the plot?

There’s a lot of talk about “data storytelling” right now. But in practice, financial data and stories feel like oil and water--sure, you can throw them together, but it doesn’t mean they got comfortable with each other.

So that being said, what’s with all the hubbub about data storytelling and how do you do that with financial data?

What they mean when they talk about storytelling

Stories are just patterns we recognize and latch onto emotionally--for example, overcoming evil or going from rags to riches. There’s also the “narrative arc” (a beginning, middle, and end) to reels you in.

Embedding data into stories makes it more memorable (because it’s easier to follow), more persuasive (because the story can end suggesting a specific course of action), and more understandable (because the numbers are couched in context).

Not your elementary teacher’s story problems

Data storytelling usually falls into a few of its own patterns (for example, a professor at Babson College splits analytical stories into ten types). Here are a couple that are most relevant for company financial data:

The history lesson

This is the simplest story, which is just an overview of past-present-future. The audience just wants to know what’s happened, what’s happening, and what the future may look like. When you’re telling a historical story, you should make sure 1) that you’re honing in on the date ranges your audience cares about (how far into the past is the past you’re talking about?), 2) that you highlight the trends over time, and 3) that any unexpected deviations from the trend come with a ready explanation.

The competition comparison

Comparisons are about benchmarking and showing how you stack up in two different directions--across companies (or industries) broadly and across different metrics against those companies. When you’re telling a competition story, start broad and lay the foundation. In storytelling terms, create the setting. Introduce your company’s metrics by themselves first, then introduce the competitive set of companies and explain why you chose the ones you did. Then get into how you compare. Show historical context (trends, not just snapshots) and highlight and explain any significant deviations.

Telling a great story means starting with the story, not the data. So start with your purpose--do you want to convince your CEO to allocate resources differently? Do you need to show your board that you’re growing faster than your competitors--and then stir in the numbers slowly and regularly. That’s how you get oil and water to mix.