How 18 minutes of war statistics can glue you to the screen

You’ve got a lot of data, numbers and statistics and you want to use these to tell an animated story, with many angles. Is that at all possible, given that as viewers we’ve all become used to silly half-a-minute cat videos? Yes, as proves this video about war victims. Based on this example, I draw four general conclusions for data-driven stories.

So, here’s 18 minutes statistics about victims of wars. The length of the video and the misery and magnitude of the topic are both big. And still I was glued to the screen by of Neil Halloran.

First, see how this works for you by watching the video below. Then I’ll try to interpret why it had this effect on me.

Almost all the different parts of this animation are well thought out. These four overall lessons stand out for me:

  1. Make your messages explicit: think about the core message of what you want to show with your data. And make this explicit. Neil does that from time to time. For example halfway, when he switches from military to civilian casualties, or near the end, when he summarizes the numbers. And of course at the end, when he discusses peace. This way the viewers know which turn he takes. And that is necessary when you want to keep someone’s attention for 18 minutes.
  2. Make concrete comparisons with your data: In a subtle way, Neil engulfs you with comparisons. His fluid graph is about time at one point, and about countries at another point. Sometimes a thousand people occupy one axis, sometimes millions. At every turn he chooses the perspective in such a way that you can always interpret the number of victims, or when they fell: relatively many, or relatively few? That reinforces his core messages.
  3. Use a fixed visual language: from start till finish the animation uses the same figures and bar charts. Neil uses colors and flags consistently. This makes for a clear image: as a viewer you immediately know what you’re looking at. Try this out by at once jumping from one point in the video to another. That’s very well possible. If you use a fixed visual language, your analyses become recognizable for the visual and instinctive subconsciousness of your viewer. And that pays off in terms of rapid understanding.
  4. Use supportive narrative visualizations: a number of times a narrative image comes along, for example of a prisoner of war, or a bombed city. These concrete images let you feel how horrible these situations were for the people involved. Meanwhile, the accompanying statistics show you just how many people faced such horrid conditions. This way, at one at the same time you get the overall picture.

All these lessons are universal, because they are based on how your audience takes up, processes and remembers information. Accordingly, you can consider how these lessons can be applied to your own (data)story.


Stijn is director, trainer and advisor at Analytic Storytelling. We help people to make content-driven stories. That is: clear and compelling communication on complex content.