Structuring an Executive Summary as a DataStory

Aug. 1, 2020
If the brain lights up when a story is told, imagine the power of using elements of storytelling to help your audience understand your DataPOV. One powerful attribute of stories […]

If the brain lights up when a story is told, imagine the power of using elements of storytelling to help your audience understand your DataPOV.

One powerful attribute of stories is how they are structured. Great stories share a framework. Whether it’s a personal story told over dinner or one from classical literature or a movie, stories told well usually have a similar 3-act structure:


Act 1. Situation – The Beginning
The main character is introduced in their environment, and their current circumstances are made clear.

Act 2. Complication – The Messy Middle
An adversarial force is introduced and the hero attempts to resolve the central conflict. They are building new skills necessary to overcome the adversary.

Act 3. Resolution – The End
The hero confronts and adversarial force and resolve the central conflict. The hero overcomes the challenge or learns new skills that transform them.

Food for Thought from Our 2022 ICT Visionaries

As an example, let’s look at the STORY TRUCTURE OF PINOCCHIO (The 1940 Film)

Act 1. Situation – The Beginning
A toymaker creates Pinocchio, a wooden puppet, and wishes on a star that he could be a real, live boy.

Act 2. Complication – The Messy Middle
Pinocchio does come to life, but he is wooden, and must prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy. He’s gullible, and crooks lure him to take part in a traveling show. He gets locked in a cage and tells lies, which makes his nose grow. He is tempted to be naughty at Pleasure Island, and he partially transforms into a donkey. (Pinocchio works through a lot of conflict until he reverses his fortune.)

Act 3. Resolution – The End
Pinocchio returns home, but his father has been swallowed by a whale while looking for Pinocchio. Pinocchio helps his dad get from the whale, but dies in the process. Because of Pinocchio’s selfless sacrifice, he is worthy of being brought back to life as a real boy.

This highly structured 3-act framework existed all the way back in Aristotle’s Poetics. It organizes content according to the way our brains process information best. Let’s see how to apply its power to communicating data through a DataStory.


One of the most important pages in your recommendation is the executive summary, because it is your first interaction with your readers. Their decision to continue reading depends upon their impression of your executive summary.

The rise and fall in a story arc can be applied to the way you structure an executive summary. We call this construction the DataStory. Borrowing from the structure of storytelling makes an executive summary engaging and memorable, and it actually reads much like a story. Notice how the 3rd act is your DataPOV. It states how you’d like the DataStory to end.


A DataStory is a concise overview of your recommendation, structured into 3 acts. Here is a very short executive summary written as a DataStory.

Act 1 – The Beginning
There is a problem or opportunity identified in the data.
Situation: The average subscription renewal rate per region is 62%.

Act 2 – The Middle
It’s messy to proceed because the data presents problems and/or opportunities.
Complication: But only 23% of client in the western region renew their subscription.

Act 3 – The End
The DataPOV addresses the problem at its root, creating a solution with positive outcomes.
Resolution: So we need to tailor our content to appeal to regional preferences to gain market share in the west.


The middle of a story is full of conflict and complications. This tension makes it engaging, stimulating our brains to root for resolution.

Think about Frodo. He has the treachery of Orcs, Gollum, a poisonous spider, impassible landscapes, and, of course, Sauron himself. And that’s only part of it! The audience is rooting for him, comparing themselves to him, learning from him, inspired by him, and relieved that it all works out in the end.

To draw a parallel: organizations are messy, too! They’re hotbeds of flawed processes, oppressive regulations, greedy shareholders, unhappy customers, broken systems, and aggressive competitors who seek their demise. Keeping any type of organization performing at a healthy level is hard work, and data can reveal something messy that needs to change. Alternatively, it can reveal an opportunity that will be hard and messy to accomplish. Either way, the middle is messy.

Act 2 of an executive summary contains the data points that need to change. What’s the measurement that will be reversed if your recommendation is approved? Or, what are the numbers that will increase with the new opportunity? That is where the "mess" is.

Reversing the number of hitting the gas pedal on a number creates a lot of work, because it requires someone to take action. The number in the middle of your story will change direction when the right actions are taken.


The middle of the DatStory, Act 2, reveals the central conflict. The data reveals measurable symptoms that must change in some way. The actions of others helps this data head in the desired direction.

Here are some ways the data may need to change:
Reverse the data
Continue the data
Increase the data
Reduce the data
Speed up the data
Slow down the data

Human behavior drives the performance of most business data. It’s usually humans who make a statistic go up or down, based upon their actions. Their output might be too low, click-through too low, salaries high, satisfaction high, turnover low, heart rate high, inventory late, routing slow, due dates missed, orders damaged, sales down, scrap high, volume flat, and/or emissions high. All of this data can be turned around by humans taking the right actions.

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About the Author: Nancy Duarte is CEO of Duarte, Inc., a large creative firm in Silicon Valley, and author of Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story. For more information, please visit

This article contains excerpts from Nancy’s book, Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story. This article is the 3rd in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 in the March 2020 issue of ISE magazine, and Part 2 on the June 2020 issue.

About the Author

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If you're interested in contributing an article, please email Sharon Vollman, Editorial Director, [email protected], or Lisa Weimer, Managing Editor, ISE Magazine, [email protected].