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Storytelling and Power BI

Creating reports that connect with your audience

Almost everyone building Power BI reports has probably faced it at least once- Dashboard Delivery Disappointment. After spending days connecting the data, cleaning it, modeling it, and creating a Power BI report… the user does not use the report. Okay, maybe once during the demo and the day after … and then silence.

There are many reasons why Power BI reports are not used: the data is incorrect (no trust), the design is not user-friendly, or the user can’t find the answer to their questions.
Using storytelling techniques can help you to create engaging and easy-to-understand reports that enable users to take the next step with data.

In this article, I describe steps you can take to create reports that connect with the audience. You can use this as a guide while building new reports or changing existing Power BI reports.

What is storytelling, and why should you use it?

Storytelling is a powerful method that uses a narrative to connect with and inspire the audience. When a good story is told, it captures our attention, engages us, and helps us remember the outcome. Incorporating storytelling techniques in a Power BI report design can help guide the audience through the report and make it easy for the user to take the next step.

Like traditional storytelling, telling a story with data in Power BI requires tailoring the report to the audience. How you tell a story to a child before bed differs from how you tell a story to your friends or coworkers. 

There are three main benefits to using storytelling in Power BI:

  1. Easy to follow and understand: By creating Power BI reports with a clear structure and narrative, it becomes easier to comprehend the information presented.

  2. Engaging: Rather than searching for answers and the correct information, users can focus on taking the next step.

  3. Time-saving: A report that is easy to understand and follows a straightforward narrative makes it much simpler to locate the necessary information for making quick and effective decisions.

Using storytelling techniques in Power BI will help you create reports that matter to the user.

How to start with Storytelling in Power BI?

You might be unsure where to start and how to incorporate storytelling into your reports. But don’t worry; following three steps, you can gradually become familiar with what you need to know to create a report using storytelling. Each step will be further discussed in this article.

Research: Like with a traditional story, you need to research who your audience is before you can tell an audience-targeting story.

Create: Create a report that tells a narrative and answers your audience’s questions.

Delivery: Delivering and testing the report.

Step 1: Research – Who is the audience and what’s the key message?

To tailor a Power BI report to the audience, you need to know who the audience is. There are several questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is it one person, a team, a group of people, the whole company …?

Creating a report for one person can be easier than for a big group because they have different needs and wishes. Knowing who you are dealing with and their needs helps you choose the right strategy.

  • What motivates them? Which actions do they want to take?

Understanding what steps, actions, and decisions your audience wants to take with the report is essential. You need to identify the information that is crucial for them. For example, if you create a report for a sales team that works with targets, determining a part of their monthly salary, they will want to know if they hit the mark. They will also want to know how much they need to hit the target and which steps they can take to improve their performance. Therefore, it is crucial to include this information in the report and visualize it in a way that directly guides them to the next steps.

  • How much detail do they need?

Not every audience needs the same amount of detail in a Power BI report. Providing too much detail or too little can lead to the report not being used effectively. For instance, if a user is only interested in a department’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and wants a general overview, a report with every detail, multiple filter options, and drill-through possibilities could be overwhelming. On the other hand, if the user requires detailed information and needs to examine it from various angles, an infographic that only focuses on the KPIs may not be sufficient. Therefore, it’s crucial to tailor the level of detail to the audience’s specific needs.

  • What is the preferred communication?

It’s important to consider how your audience will be accessing and consuming your report so that you can design it in a way that suits their needs. For instance, if your audience primarily uses their phones to view reports, the design must be different than viewing it on a laptop. Additionally, audience preferences, such as their preferred style, such as dark or light mode, can vary and should also be considered.

Creating Personas

When faced with a large and diverse audience, it is recommended to create personas. Personas are fictional representations of different user types in your audience. Communicating with every individual in a large organization can be impractical and time-consuming. By developing personas, you can identify the different types of audience members, their needs and desires, and their similarities and differences. 

Avoid making assumptions. If you cannot talk directly to the users who will work with your Power BI report, try to speak to someone who knows them or to similar groups in the organization. Making assumptions can lead to designing a report that the audience can’t use or understand. For example, assuming this is just another sales report and creating it the same way as a previous one may not work if this audience has different needs.

Storytelling in Power BI: What's the message?

Once you have identified the audience for your Power BI report, it’s essential to determine the specific information they require from the report and the actions they intend to take with it. This will help you choose the appropriate visualization for the report and enable you to label or color code the information in the report.

To identify the message, ask the audience to describe the report’s goal in 1 sentence. Including:

  • Context (example: a monthly sales report for the account managers)
  • Information (example: KPIs measuring the performance of account manager and products)
  • Actions to take with the result (Example: evaluate performance & strategy)

Key message examples

  • Each year, we share information with the whole company about our key sales results (profit, costs, margin..) to inform everyone.

Context: Yearly information for a company-wide update
Information: KPIs on an overview level
Action: Just informative

Based on the information provided, the design should prioritize ease of understanding. An infographic without filters may be perfect, as the target audience does not require features like filtering. Additionally, this information could be presented on a PowerPoint slide during an annual meeting or be part of a company-wide email.

  • As a management team, we evaluate monthly the key sales results, the performance of our account managers in € compared to a target, and the best/worst products.

Context: Monthly update for the management team about account manager performance
Information: Performance of the account manager (€ vs. target), related best and worst product sales
Actions: They want to be able to evaluate the performance; this information will then be used to discuss performance with the account managers.

A different key message = different design

Different audiences need different Power BI reports to understand and work with the information provided. Knowing the audience and the key message, you can design accordingly.

For instance, if the report is intended for a company-wide audience, a highly visual infographic highlighting the most important information may be more effective than a detailed report that overwhelms the user with unnecessary information.

On the other hand, if the report is meant for evaluating performance, the user may require additional supporting information to understand why an account manager didn’t hit their target. This may include data on related products, trends over time, and the ability to filter information based on various criteria, such as location.

Storytelling in Power BI - Level of Granularity
Level of granularity of report design

Step 2: Creating a story

After you get to know your audience and decide on which key message needs to be answered with the report, it’s time to design the report.

Storyboard

To be able to tell a story in a report, it can be helpful to use a storyboard. A storyboard is a visual representation of the information gathered previously. It can include information about the audience, their needs, the information they are seeking, and the actions they want to take. Also, it contains drafts of visuals supporting the story.
You can use sticky notes or a tool to rearrange shapes easily to create a storyboard.

The goal of a storyboard is to represent each piece of information you want to convey visually. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process. You can keep it simple and make drafts on sticky notes.

Creating a storyboard allows you to review your report, rearrange it quickly and easily, and decide if it provides the information the audience needs.

Sticky Notes Story Board Power BI
Sticky Note Storyboard
Concept KPI Dashboard Storytelling Power BI
Concept report design

Templates

Maintaining consistency in a report is crucial, and templates are an excellent way to achieve it. While presenting data through storytelling techniques, the focus should be on the key message and the necessary actions to be taken based on the information provided. Users should not waste their time searching for buttons or getting oriented every time they open a new Power BI report. Therefore, using templates helps provide a user-friendly experience and enhances the report’s effectiveness.

If you do not currently use templates, you can always start to document which elements you want to bring back in all of your reports. This could be the same color scheme, the same placement of the filter bar, the same visualizations for the same information and so on.

Power BI Templates
Power BI templates for different audiences

Color schemes

Providing the same color scheme in all reports is an excellent way of using consistency. The user knows what to expect (for example, if you use the same color for each product group) and does not need to think again about it every time. This lessens the cognitive load, which makes it easier to focus on what’s important.

Step 3: Delivery of the Power BI report

After creating a report using all the techniques discussed previously, the work doesn’t end there. An often overlooked yet important step in report design is evaluation. 

Evaluation

It’s crucial to evaluate not only at the end of a project but also during the design process. It’s important to check in with your target audience and get feedback while creating the report rather than waiting until the last moment. Waiting could result in disappointment if the audience expected something different.
Therefore, make sure that you plan enough feedback moments with your audience.

Test run

It can be useful to do a trial presentation of your report with a small group of the audience before presenting it to everyone. This will allow you to receive feedback on the clarity of the story, the ease of interpretation of the visuals, and other relevant aspects. By doing this, you can ensure that the majority of the audience will understand the report by the time you present it to them.

Usage report

Checking the usage report provided by Power BI is an excellent method to determine if users are opening the report. An unopened report may suggest that users can’t locate it. A report that was opened during the evaluation but never again after that, could mean that it does not provide the information needed.

Summing up - Best practices for Storytelling and Power BI

  • Know your audience! Not everyone has the same needs and wishes regarding Power BI reports.
  • Use 1 key message to create a story for the report.
  • Use a storyboard and templates to check if the story works.
  • Evaluate, not just at the end but also during the process. 
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