Stories are all around us in our day to day and are fundamental to the way we experience life and see the world. In its third year now, London’s The Story conference brings together people who craft stories for their living, congregating around tons of coffee and a full day’s line-up of 20-minute speakers.

What storytelling means and how we use it in the modern day was the open-ended theme of the talks. The eclectic schedule included an appearance from Hoxton’s Ministry of Stories, the debonair alter ego of Monster Supplies, an impassioned call-to-arms from a firebrand internet activist, and a deep-dive investigation into poo in children’s literature.

My personal highlights were talks from Alex Balfour, the media mastermind behind the London Olympics who spent six years engineering that feverish buzz, and Maritime Museum design lead Fiona Romeo, who’s been taking cues from Disney Corp’s playbook to reinvent the exhibition format (coming to think of it, yeah, illegible scratchings from an author’s notebook isn’t the most thrilling of things to see on display). Wired has already done great write-ups for both.

How technology is changing the way we tell stories

How indeed. Though the 13 speakers were varied enough in their backgrounds and subjects, it felt that tech was underrepresented and it would have been good to hear from the likes of games designers, transmedia creators and data journalists.

Talking to some advertising copywriters during one of the coffee breaks, I drew puzzled blanks when I explained I was into data visualisation and interested in the storytelling potential of data. I said that data, told right, can make an emotional impact just like all these other forms of communication in the spotlight, and gushed about Periscopic’s latest piece on US gun crime that was recently featured in the Guardian. 9,595 gun deaths in 2010 feels like a statistic, a piece of information, but by repainting this figure as 400,000 combined years of life unlived, the storyteller immediately makes the fact more relatable and emotionally engaging.

And then I spilt coffee on someone else’s arm in excitement and lost their attention for ever.

Dramatising information with visual metaphors

Data is boring because Excel spread sheets aren’t intuitive to the human brain. On the other hand, colours, shapes and scale are more stimulating because we’re more used to intuitively processing these cues, associating red with danger and up with growth, for example.

Data visualisation, then, is a process of translating boringly unintuitive information into something the brain can more easily relate to and comprehend. It turns an abstract concept into something more immediately meaningful, helping us make sense of it and also communicate it to others. Stephen Few’s primer on the subject is a must-read.

Data visualisation is really exciting right now because it’s becoming easier, more eloquent and also because there’s tons of great data becoming readily available for anyone to explore as part of the open data movement. There’s huge momentum behind web-based technologies that facilitate data visualisation, with the likes of D3 set to advance the fundamental way we communicate stories, and just as most of us can read and write, we’ll find ourselves becoming more and more capable of talking in the language of data.

And that’s great, because as we all know a picture speaks a thousand words and elegantly visualised data can be a much more efficient form of communication than the written or spoken word.

Some starting points

Hans Rosling’s talk on world health, the 7th most watched video on TED, is the classic that crops up time and time again in these conversations, the Citizen Kane of statistics, staple viewing for anyone getting into data.

New York Times’ Jer Thorpe is another celebrity in data storytelling who appears on stage a lot. This presentation on humanising data through design is pretty essential.

Slightly more tangentially, this piece from the Black Label Movement is a great demonstration of making difficult concepts accessible through visual metaphors and top class-storytelling.

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