Reporting the findings of data-driven discovery is often thought of as “the crucial last step” in an analytics programme , Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted as meaning it is of lesser importance – nothing could be further from the truth!
If you’re interested in data-driven transformation and discovery, then it’s important not to become one of the many who fall at the last hurdle thanks to a lazy over-reliance on generic Powerpoint presentations and stale slideshows.
No matter how many petabytes of data you’ve streamed in real-time and how sophisticated your analytics stack, if it doesn’t give the right people the right information at the right time, you’re wasting your time. And probably a whole lot of money and other resources, too.
Dr Stephanie Evergreen is the author of Presenting Data Effectively: Communicating Your Findings for Maximum Impact. She is a well-known expert on matters involving visual isation and communications, and she spoke to me to pass on some basic, but often overlooked, tips on presenting data so it will make an impact.
“I think the big issue is we often forget how hard it is to be a consumer of data. It’s great that everything has become so data-driven but I think we have so much of it that we have what I have been calling ‘the burden of knowledge,’ Evergreen tells me.
“That means that we know so much, it’s hard to talk about it to people who don’t know – as you gain more expertise it becomes harder to put yourself in the head of your audience.”
So here are some of Stephanie Evergreen’s tips for overcoming that burden and becoming more effective at communicating data-driven discoveries.
Carefully consider colour
“One of our strongest storytelling tools is to use grey plus some kind of action colour ”, Evergreen tells me. Anyone used to seeing corporate reports will be used to multicolour pie charts and graphs, often using whatever colour s come up by default in a template.
This is missing an opportunity to take advantage of the storytelling potential of colour – the primary component our sense of sight is based on.
“Our eyes are attracted to colour – we’re built that way – so what we should be doing when we’re telling stories with data is some kind of action colour that will drive the eyeballs towards the part of the data where the story is being told.
“And then we use grey to de-em phasis e everything else that isn’t totally germaine or essential at that point.”
Great visual isation s don’t leave a lot of room for words – the point is to tell the story using images. That doesn’t mean words aren’t important – the smart strategy is to think of it as meaning that every letter is essential, and there’s certainly no room for wasted words.
“As we don’t have a lot of room for wording, the little bits that we put into our data have to be really awesome,” Evergreen says.
Start here by thinking about making titles and headings less generic, she suggests. “I often see something super-generic at the top of a report – like ‘sales’. Everyone who looks at it is going to be, like, ‘what about sales?’
Try using that prime page real estate to highlight the point you are trying to make. “Try ‘sales were down’ or ‘sales were up but not by enough’”, Evergreen says. Data-driven storytelling is just like regular storytelling in a lot of ways but there is one crucial difference … in a data story, no one needs a surprise ending! It’s usually more effective to give your audience the facts they’ve paid you to find out, up front.
Don’t stay stuck in the past
If you’re reporting business analytics, at least 50 per cent of your audience will be reading them on a mobile device, Evergreen tells me. For some strange reason though, reports are often presented as if they’re intended to be printed out and bound into a book. This is totally unnecessary these days, Evergreen suggests, and leads to bad habits which could prevent your actual readers from engaging.
“We’re still carrying over some very old things like leaving blank pages in documents – it’s such a stupid idea. When you’re reading something on your phone and you see a blank page you’re likely to think it hasn’t loaded, and then you go and check Twitter or something and you never come back to it again.”
Bloating reports with anything that isn’t “cutting to the chase” is a good way to get your findings ignored and leave your insights unexploited.
Start at the end
Alluded to above but this deserves its own heading – Evergreen advises flipping the script when it comes to the order we present data in. “We have to re-arrange our way of reporting.
“I think especially if you’ve come through academia you get this culture indoctrinated into you that says you have to give your background, then explain your message, and then maybe by chapter 40 you’ll talk about the findings that people have paid you to discover.”
This fails the audience test mentioned at the start of the article – it really isn’t considering things from their point of view and describing them in a way they are likely to hook onto.
“So, I encourage people to start with the action items, conclusions and findings – I call it ‘giving the bottom line up front”.
Become a ‘numbers artist’
This involves thinking about more than logic and numbers when considering how to present your data. “Research shows that people are persuaded to take action or change their minds when you speak to both their heads, and their hearts,” Evergreen says.
Numbers do a great job of filling our rational need for quantifiable information. But when it comes to communicating how things will actually impact our real lives, or affect the world we live in, some form of huma nisi ng or grounding the data in reality is often effective.
“Sometimes that can be achieved by putting a photograph which relates to your topic next to your graph. Sometimes it can just be as simple as including a graph.” Anything besides a table of raw numbers makes assessing the true, real-world implications of data an easier task.”
“This gives us a chance to put your data into terms that other people are going to remember – everything we’ve talked about here, such as using colour and words, go into that – it’s all part of becoming a numbers artist and speaking to people’s heads and hearts together.”
Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, and advisor to companies and governments. He has worked with and advised many of the world's best-known organisations. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 10 Business Influencers in the world (in fact, No 5 - just behind Bill Gates and Richard Branson). He writes on the topics of intelligent business performance for various publications including Forbes, HuffPost, and LinkedIn Pulse. His blogs and SlideShare presentation have millions of readers.