Blog & News

The Power of Words

By Ehud Reiter | February 15, 2021

Words can be incredibly powerful when it comes to describing data. I remember once years ago when I was talking to an Arria client who wanted to summarize sensor-based alarms. At the time he visualized the alarms with tables and timelines, but it was very complex. So I pointed out that a narrative could summarize the key insights with a few well-chosen words, such as:

We saw a burst of XXX alerts yesterday, but nothing since.

The frequency of YYY alerts is rising fast.

The client was impressed, and became a convert to the “power of words” to describe data!

We can also see the power of words in Arria’s variance analysis app, which can be seen in Arria’s Sale Performance dashboard.

Actual Sales rose by $3.8M … an increase in Germany … was offset by a decrease in Canada.

The word “offset” does a great job of helping readers build a mental model of the situation compared to simply saying that there was an increase in Germany and a decrease in Canada.

I’ve seen similar things in my university work. For example, we are currently looking at using advanced NLG to generate sports stories, and I’ve been impressed by the power of words in sentences such as:

AAA recovered and managed to eke out a victory.

BBB had a disappointing start and got worse.

Words such as the above make the story come alive in a way that doesn’t happen with charts and graphs!

I’ve also seen in my university work that narratives can be better decision-aids than visuals, in part because they deliver focused and powerful insights, whereas many people looking at graphs get distracted by patterns that aren’t actually significant or relevant.

It’s also important to keep in mind that there are a lot of people who struggle to understand data visualizations, especially when we look beyond skilled professionals. Many years ago I did a research project where we tried to communicate simple information to adults with poor “basic skills”, that is, limited numeracy and literacy. Everyone we talked to understood sentences such as the above, but quite a few could not understand even the simplest graphs.

And perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Humans have been using language and words for tens of thousands of years; some scientists believe that language is a big part of what makes us different from other species. We have evolved to be language users, so of course we are really good at using and understanding words and language.

So if you are developing an NLG narrative generator using Arria Studio, take some time to identify evocative “key words” that will convey insight and understanding to your readers, and try to use them in your narratives when possible. In other words, make full use of the power of words!