Why the Best Data Comes With a Good Story

(c) 2017 adobe stock photo

(c) 2017 adobe stock photo

Have you ever seen your co-worker’s eyes glaze over while discussing the latest report you created? Do you find that you’re interrupted or ignored whenever you have something to present?

It’s possible that your data isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s your presentation that needs work.

Today’s top business analysts aren’t just great with numbers and data; they’re great with presentations. They know how to take their information and package it in a way that engages their teams.

Here’s why having math skills alone won’t cut it in the world of business intelligence, and why being able to tell stories is equally important. 

Data Doesn’t Change How Humans Make Decisions

There’s no doubt that more companies are starting to see the value in business analysis and data management. More than 75 percent of enterprises believe that big data analysis has the power to change the way they do business, and 53 percent say making their business decisions more data-driven is one of their top goals today, Louis Columbus writes on Forbes. 

However, investing in big data is only the first part of the equation. The second (and arguably harder) part is creating a culture driven by data.     

Lisa Morgan talks about this second half of the equation in InformationWeek. Despite the fact that investment in businesses intelligence and analytics tools is increasing, organizations aren’t necessarily getting the most out of them to make better business decisions. This is either because the BI team isn’t able to visualize and tell a story that can motivate change, or management isn’t taking steps for change after they receive new information.

The solution to both of these problems lies in training: Not only do BI teams need to be trained on the analytics tools the company has invested in, but they also need to learn how to weave them into a narrative.

Preparing the Next Generation of Storytellers

Brent Dykes, director of data strategy at Domo, says people only hear statistics — but they feel stories.

Despite this, Dykes has found that universities are failing to teach students to present data in a way that moves others to action. Today’s graduates are leaving with strong mathematics and data manipulation skills, but they’re faltering in the “last mile” of presentation.

While this might not immediately affect their hiring prospects, storytelling is becoming a crucial skill to lobby for additional resources and get noticed by the company.

“No matter what your functional area of expertise may be, learning to write well and confidently present your ideas will set you apart,” Joe Staples writes at Fast Company.

Think about the hundreds of emails the average CEO receives daily and the dozens of presentation they sit through. If you can’t articulate the information you find in an interesting and memorable way, then you won’t get noticed and will struggle to enact change within your organization.

Understanding the Psychology

To understand why data alone isn’t enough for business analysts to excel, you have to understand how the human brain works.

“If you think about most big topics, people are not persuaded by logic,” writes Dr. Rob Yeung, author of How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed. “Most people in the Western world know that smoking cigarettes is bad for you and understand the principles of weight loss. But that’s not enough to motivate them to change. People do not listen to facts. You need an emotional angle.”

Furthermore, neuroscientists have found that people who cannot process emotions struggle to make decisions, proving that emotional pull plays a role in our decision-making.      

You might find that these emotions are the main barriers to changing minds, especially if it means a higher-level manager needs to set aside their pride and admit they were wrong. In this case, you’re not only using storytelling to sell your data, but you’re using human traits like empathy and understanding.      

“Even in large corporations that focus on very logical approaches to strategy, culture, and analysis of data, change happens because the leaders find a way to help people see problems or solutions in ways that influence their emotions –– not just their reasoning,” writes Dianna Booher, author of What More Can I Say? Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It.

While corporations might want to take a more data-driven approach to change, employees ranging from entry-level analysts to CEOs pitching to the board need to tap into human emotions to drive change.

Analyzing Data to Guide Your Audience

Although organizations want to make more data-driven decisions, many are stuck in emotions-based decision-making cultures. This isn’t entirely a bad thing when it is used in partnership with data.

“With analytics, your goal is normally to change how someone makes a decision or takes an action,” writes Tom Davenport, author of Big Data @ Work. “You’re attempting to persuade, inspire trust, and lead change with these powerful tools. No matter how impressive your analysis is, or how high-quality your data are, you’re not going to compel change unless the stakeholders for your work understand what you have done.”

Nayomi Chibana uses an example of how humans view the world around them. While you think you can see everything in an 180 degrees, you can only focus on a two-degree field at a time. As individuals, we zoom in on different two-degree elements at a time, darting around until we feel as if we understand the picture.

The same can be said with your data. By presenting an endless list of numbers, you’re letting your audience come to their own conclusions (if any) instead of leading them down a path of what they should see.

Responsible analysts won’t let their co-workers wander aimlessly, but will create a guide for how they should see the information.

Weaving Data Into the Larger Narrative

Once storytelling is introduced as part of the data analytics process, you can start to see how closely it fits within your daily methodology.

Pamela Peele Ph.D. is a former journalist who manages an enterprise-level analytics department. She believes that one of the best steps companies can take to improve their analytics departments is to hire someone with a communications or journalism background.

These professionals are used to following leads and piecing together information to create a coherent story. While your analysts can sort the data and create a highlight reel, your communications expert can package it in a way that elicits change in upper-management.

Interestingly, data and storytelling create a chicken-and-egg situation within the BI team: Do you use stories to sell your data, or do you search your data to support your story?

The team at Maptive answered this when they created their guide to compelling data storytelling. The first two steps of the process are finding a compelling hypothesis, then following it with research to prove it. The hypothesis then structures your research.

Even then, the process remains cyclical when analysts take the data and present it in a way that matches their narratives. Storytelling and data are completely intertwined, and one part can’t just be added at the end of another.

Jason Lankow at Visage agrees that there are two paths that you can take during the data analysis process:

  • Analyzing the data in search of possible trends, outliers and questions.
  • Knowing your questions ahead of time and using data to answer them.

In many cases, analysts will likely use both processes throughout their careers. They might follow a directive from management to better understand unknown elements, or they might turn to data to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Presenting Your Data to Keep Your Audience’s Attention

Your method of research can also help you during your presentation. Gary Genard encourages lower-level employees to follow the B-L-U-F method when they speak up at meetings, or Bottom Line Up Front.

This is where your business presentation differs from traditional storytelling. Instead of setting up a problem and building the tale into a climax or solution, you’re highlighting your conclusion first and then providing your main points behind it. In this manner, your presentation would look like an idea tree, with supplemental and tertiary analytics defending your big ideas.  

“One of the best ways to convince skeptics of your merits is to prove you know what you’re doing,” Dorie Clark writes at Time. In the case of data storytelling, this means deciding what information is highlighted and what data is kept as supplemental material.

For example, you might use three specific pieces of information to prove your point, but keep four or five more points close by. This way, if your CEO asks a follow-up question based on the data, you can answer with more information on the spot instead of retreating to create additional charts.

Speaking Up and Making Yourself Heard

The final step of the storytelling process is making yourself heard. Speaking up isn’t easy for lower-level employees or even managers who work with strong personalities. However, presentation is just as much how you say something as what you actually say.

That isn’t easy, and we know it. In an article for Forbes, Ashley Stahl shares her own experiences about feeling overwhelmed in the boardroom. At 23, she was hired to run a program for the Pentagon, and found herself having to make herself heard in a room full of military leaders.

“Having a voice in the workforce is like a muscle that grows stronger with frequent use,” Stahl writes. Every step you take makes you more confident in your ideas and knowledge. 

“One of the best ways to contribute to your company — and get noticed by the company's leaders — is to speak up and share thoughtful, intelligent ideas,” Nicole Fallon writes at Business News Daily.

Telling a great story is a great way to capture the attention of the room, while supporting it with facts adds teeth to your argument and helps win people over.

The best data in the world will go unnoticed if there isn’t a champion to tell its story or provide context for the information. In this way, business analysts are ambassadors for their data, pinning it to a larger narrative within the company to enact change and help the business grow.