What Improv Storytelling has to offer to Data Artists

In 2015, Ben Wellington gave a TEDx talk on how he borrowed principles from his lifelong love for Improv Comedy and applied it to his Data Visualization practice. “I accidentally became a data storyteller,” he says.

“The Open Data Laws are really exciting for people like me because it takes data that is inside City Government, and suddenly allows anyone to look at it.”

The narrative that came out of contextualizing this data spotted zones that fervent NYC cyclists are better off avoiding and shed some light on the battle strategies of new yorkers’ favorite pharmacies. Wellington closes the distance between Data Viz and Improv by ‘Connecting with People’s Experiences’ and ‘Conveying one simple (and powerful) idea at a time’.

Alan Alda, the seven-time emmy winning actor of M*A*S*H along with Ocean and Environmental Scientist and Associate Director at The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Dr. Christine O’Connell experimented with a group of scientists, doctors and engineers in 2016 in a workshop to employ Improv Storytelling in communicating their research.

“I think anybody that studies something so deeply, whether you’re an engineer, whether you’re an artist, whether you’re in business, you forget what it’s like not to know” – O’Connell

Empathy lies at the heart of Improv and therefore, at the heart of good communication. The idea of speaking to your audience and working with them to create a common language and evolve into clarity is especially relevant for Data Scientists and Data Artists.

The Data Artist creates an imaginary, artificial environment not dissimilar to that of an Improv actor where certain cues are visible and certain others have to be made up. The logic of this environment, however, needs to be consistent and is as important as the trust established within it.

“Even small breaks can affect credibility. – When we visualize data, we are (asking our audience to suspend their understanding of reality for a moment and accept new rules and conditions). We are asking our audience to understand shapes and forms on a digital screen to be something other than what they are.” – Ryan Morrill, Storybench, October 2017.

The Data Viz equivalent of Laughter in an Improv Comedy Scene is the deriving of Insight, says Morrill, where the logic reveals a reward.

Author: Surabhi Naik

Surabhi Naik is a designer and writer dedicated to Immersive Narratives & Experience Design based in New York City. A graduate student at The New School’s Media Studies Program, she is currently deep-diving into Immersive Storytelling Design & Research and is the Editor for Data Matters Publication at the Center for Data Arts.

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