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Seven Steps for Using Data and Power BI to be Productive in Telling a Data Story

Headshot of article author Sarina Stevens

The Microsoft Office team recently partnered with Levo, a network for millennials in the workplace to help navigate their career paths, to poll 1,500 community members to find out more about their productivity habits and challenges. The Office team was looking for an engaging way to share Levo’s findings with the media – one approach they took was to use Microsoft Power BI to produce an interactive and compelling report from the data. The best part about it? I got to play with the data firsthand to understand the results for the Mastering Your Productivity in 2017 survey announcement and uncover the most fascinating data it contains, then illustrate that data in a way others would understand and value.


This report is an example using data visualization to enhance storytelling efforts by leveraging the Power BI publish to web capability on blogs, websites and news articles. Power BI has also proved to be a great tool for telling stories in broadcast media – one example is the recent election coverage from KING 5 News. The Office team saw the benefits of including data visualization in the Office blog post because incorporating data helps establish credibility and adding interactive elements like Power BI reports increases engagement. As I dug through the data, I got to thinking about my own productivity habits and how I work with data to tell a story.

What I realized is there are several steps which, when taken in order, significantly decrease the process of moving from data to insightful visualizations and realizations, which helps uncover the story hidden in the data.


1. Get Familiar with Formatting Data

The first step is understanding the format of the data and getting it ready to import into Power BI. Power BI connects to hundreds of data sources and also lets you use content packs, either from a third party like Salesforce or Marketo, or your organization. In this case, the data was in an Excel spreadsheet and was formatted in a way that I could easily import into Power BI to begin visualizing the information quickly. We hear from people getting started with data storytelling that understanding how to work with the data can be the first hurdle if they are beginners, so if you could use some information or training on this topic, I recommend checking out this article and these guided learning topics. Building skills in this area is definitely a way to master your productivity,

2. Explore & Highlight Interesting Insights

It’s no surprise that productivity is important to happiness – in fact, 93% of the Levo survey respondents believe productivity is important to happiness. When we discovered this compelling finding, we knew a full page of the report should be dedicated to this insight. In fact, we took it one step further and enabled people to filter through the data by age to understand how attitudes change across demographics. I uncovered other interesting insights when working with this data. For example, adding a filter to include industry or geographic location brings in more variables that can help make the data more relevant and familiar. Ultimately for this story we decided a simple visual with one filter for age was the best choice, and we’ve added the report to the Data Stories Gallery and embedded above so you can check out the final product for yourself.

3. Shrug Off Distractions to Focus on Data Discoveries

When I’m working with data, I face a lot of distractions – whether it by my inbox piling up, or colleagues dropping by for a chat. It turns out I’m not alone: 29% of survey respondents site too many distractions as the number one challenge to being productive. I find that when I’m working with a new data set, I try to find at least an hour or two of undisturbed time to explore and uncover the story the data is trying to tell me. I use helpful features like Quick Insights that leverage Machine Learning advanced analytical algorithms to find insights within a dataset, and look for outliers that might lead me to other interesting stories. I play around with different visualizations in Power BI to see what insights I can uncover early to boost my confidence and get me excited about the discoveries ahead.

4. Get Creative with Visuals

Depending on the audience you are creating for, I like to think of ways to visualize the data without restricting myself to the out-of-the-box set of visuals. Sometimes this means creating a visual from scratch, or tweaking an existing one. When I was working with this data, I saw an opportunity to create a custom visual to show off the information in the best way. The Power BI visuals and framework are built using technologies such as D3, HTML5 and CSS3 and the code is open source, so you can visit GitHub to create your own high quality custom visuals. The waffles on pages two and three of the report show off this capability, as well as the results of this survey.

5. Stay Inspired by Looking at Other’s Work

There are numerous ways to master your productivity while working with data this year. Creating to do lists and calendar tasks were on top of the list in the results of this survey. Finding inspiration is key to my own ability to stay productive when working with data, so I often take some time to explore the Power BI Data Stories Gallery to see the amazing variety of reports and think of new ideas.

6. Use Microsoft’s Free Resources to Enhance Learning

One tip from the Office team blog for mastering your productivity is to make your tech work for you, not against you. If you are ready to build skills as a data storyteller, we can help you tackle the tech, and refine your understanding of data visualization. To get started, have a look at the five-course on-demand series I presented with data visualization expert and designer Alberto Cairo, and my colleague Lukasz Pawlowski. Click on ‘Visit the courses’ to access and begin with the ‘Introduction to Visualization’ course. It gets you started with how to use data visualization for storytelling, then the remaining courses discuss why you should leverage graphics, data exploration, truthful visualization, how to choose the right graphics, and design and narrative.

7. Get Connected with Fellow Data Storytellers

To familiarize yourself with data storytelling and develop a feeling for what might be interesting and work well for your audience, I find it very useful to connect to people with the same interests. There are a ton of highly skilled data artists, analysts, visualizers and storytellers with great work to get inspired by and learn from. Looking to team up, get help and find out more? Get engaged in the Power BI Data Storytelling Community – by asking questions, sharing results, and utilizing the resources provided.

Check out more productivity tips from the Office team on their blog.