Let the data define your story angle
Data storytelling lessons from the team at Kontinentalist
Which data storytelling studios do you follow for inspiration?
One of my favourites is Kontinentalist — a creative and innovative agency based in Singapore. I’ve long admired their approach, so I’m very excited to give you a sneak peak behind the scenes — this newsletter is an interview with two people from the Kontinentalist team! You’ll learn tips on how to choose a story angle, develop a narrative and so much more. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?
Loh Pei Ying: Hi, my name is Pei Ying, I'm the Head and Co-founder of Kontinentalist. My day-to-day work involves me doing mostly administrative tasks, looking after our clients’ and partners’ needs, setting the company's strategic directions and sometimes also dabbling in stories.
Nabilah Said: Hi, my name is Nabilah and I'm the Editorial Lead of Kontinentalist. My day as an editor mainly consists of editing story drafts, refining story angles, and having discussions with team members on stories currently in process. Sometimes I project manage or write stories too, so I might be brainstorming on a new story idea, or meeting partners. I also help plan projects, events, social media, and ensure that there's consistency across all our offerings.
What’s the story behind Kontinentalist? How did it come to be?
Loh Pei Ying: Kontinentalist started in 2017. It came from an ambition of wanting to put out more information about the latest infrastructural or political developments in Asia to keep citizens informed of what's happening around them, so that they can stay ahead or remain competitive. We've published over 100 stories to date, and always keep exploring how to make information more engaging and insightful.
What kind of projects do you work on most often?
Loh Pei Ying: Because I studied history at university, I often cover the heritage and historical pieces. I believe strongly that a lot of things in society today can be explained with a bit of history. For example, how our systems function, how racial dynamics work, how these things may be inherited from a colonial past or a pre-colonial past.
Some stories I have worked on are about historical trade routes and their impact on present ones, like in our Understanding the Belt and Road story. Recently, I have also been working on a story about historical rubber trade and the industry that supported it in historic Malaya (currently modern Singapore and Malaysia).
Nabilah Said: As an editor, I'm more of a generalist. But when it comes to my own taste of consuming and writing stories, I gravitate towards the ones that have more of a human interest or cultural angle, or have a quirky or unusual streak to them. I helped with a microstory on Instagram about mystical spaces in Asia. This was really interesting because while there’s a lot of both academic and esoteric writing about it, there's not that much data available when it comes to what counts as a “mystical space” in Asia.
What’s your method for finding a story angle?
Nabilah Said: The trained journalist in me usually thinks of it as—don't go in with an angle, talk to people or do your research and keep yourself open to what the angle will eventually be. In our workshops, we teach participant to begin with a research question in mind.
I recall discussing a micro-story about the representation of women writers in Southeast Asian literature with our colleague Bianchi. We generally knew that there was a problem of underrepresentation, but then I started being curious about who wins writing awards—would the data support our suspicions? In this case, we were sadly proven right, but the data showed a starker picture than we had even suspected. It also brought us deeper down the rabbit hole, because we started looking at who judges these awards (mostly men, as you would suspect).
How do you define the plot, or the narrative arc of the story? Do you do it at the initial stages or later in the design process?
Loh Pei Ying: We usually have a gist of an idea before we begin to even flesh out a story. We have certain thresholds for stories to pass our editorial standards as well. The first is as Nabilah mentioned, a central question. Our writers will need to include that, and also three key sources that they are referring to answer this question, including data sources. This usually forms a pretty good backbone for us to flesh out a full outline of the story, where we deep dive into the data to investigate.
The research and investigative process usually comes first before we begin to even plot out anything. We also bring in our developers and designers early into the story creation process so that they can also add their thoughts, and that's where we'll decide what sort of interactions will go on to the page. We also decide here on the type of visual or emotional impact we'll like to make as the reader goes through a piece.
For our writing, we usually follow a pretty traditional narrative arc, and we don't switch things up too often, although I guess we should. We tend to start with laying out what the issue is with a little sort of nutgraf, followed by the whataboutisms of this topic. If there's a large dataset, then we break it down frame by frame, before usually leaving our readers with a call-to-action for what they can do to participate in this issue. We iterate throughout this process.
Nabilah Said: I do think that the team is open to new ways of storytelling. It depends on the story. We did a story on Southeast Asian sci-fi, where the story was told in a different narrative style from our usual where the reader was referred to in second- person, like they’re a player in a narrative-based game. The story was written as if you were being brought through a journey through time and space, encountering characters or tropes or icons from the various sci-fi scenes of the region. That was very exciting because the illustrations and visualisations had to be very cohesive to the story and not break the immersion. The plot had to be very strong and carry the reader through from start to finish, and the entire team never lost sight of that.
Can you share one tip on data storytelling that you wish you were aware of when you first started?
Nabilah Said: Mine is pretty basic, but I'm dealing with it right now. I think it's very tempting to look at data and be fixated on things like cleaning it and processing it—almost working on it like a machine—and finding a nice, pretty chart to visualise it, but be completely unprecise about how it supports the story you’re telling. Like either thinking mainly in aesthetic terms, or having a vague idea that “a chart goes here!”. Even though that sounds really basic, I find myself frequently trapped in this cycle of, “ok, I'm cleaning a lot of data. I'm doing a lot of things… wait what am I doing?” That’s something painful that I am learning, especially after hours of Excel work.
Loh Pei Ying: It is a similar one for me. I look back to some of my older stories and I cringe a little sometimes. I think that they are too content heavy. Even now, I still struggle, and pack too much into a story. I wish that I knew early on that curation is very important, being very purposeful with your visualisations is incredibly important.
Like Nabilah said, it is not about creating the most visually appealing data visualisation, but more of what can get your message across the most effectively? It does not just refer to how easy it is for your visualisation to be understood, more of does this visualisation does justice to the topic? Does it convey the emotional message that you want to impart, or highlight the messages you want your readers to take away with? I think those things are important in practicing data storytelling.
I love these final tips, so let’s wrap up here. A huge thanks to Pei Ying and Nabilah for sharing their precious experience and wisdom with us! And thank you for reading.
See you next week,
🥁 A public data storytelling course, coming this spring!
I’ve got big news! This spring, I’ll be running my first public data storytelling masterclass. The course will be cohort-based, and I’m partnering up with Maven to do this! I’m really excited to share all the details with you soon. In the meantime, you can join the waitlist by replying to this super short survey. Once you do, you’ll be informed about the course launch date and the early bird pricing. 🚀
Did you know that I run my own data storytelling studio called Parabole? 📡 If you like The Plot and my approach to data storytelling, do reach out to us for design projects, trainings or consulting services. Just shoot me an email at email@example.com and we’ll get things going! See you soon :)