They say data is the new oil, but like the “peak oil” theory from decades ago, maybe we’ve reached “peak data.” Everyone nowadays is “data-driven,” secretly aspiring to be a data scientist, the “hottest job of the 21st century.” But the challenge today isn’t being data-driven — it’s being data-fluent: optimally using data to communicate more efficiently and with greater impact.
And companies are responding. Bloomberg, Adobe, Guardian Insurance, and other companies have implemented data science academies to help employees in all disciplines learn how to analyze data. Data-infused mathematical models, meanwhile, pervade our lives and have become what one business journalist calls “weapons of math destruction … that threaten to rip apart our social fabric.”
To put it bluntly, every knowledge worker today is swimming in statistics and diving deep into data — but you’re more likely drowning in it.
By keeping three simple principles in mind, you can stop drowning in data and begin using it as a life vest — one that bolsters your ideas and brings clarity to your story.
1. More data does not necessarily lead to better insight
In his book The Tyranny of Metrics, historian Jerry Muller describes two common problems with today’s obsession with data:
First, when you tie “data-driven” outcomes to compensation, you can actually create the opposite effect of what you intend. Think of teachers teaching to a test to receive a better performance review, or bankers opening up fraudulent accounts to meet their quarterly goals.
Second is a subtler form of metric tyranny that creeps into our daily work: We think we don’t have enough data to make sound decisions. With this poor assumption, we’ll incessantly hunt for more numbers, spinning our wheels to find the ones that will finally convince our audience. In reality, we are merely drowning them in facts and figures.
To answer either data obsession, we should instead focus on the right data to make our point. Like George Orwell’s writing advice to never use a long word where a short one will do, never use five stats when just one will do. Focus your attention on the one number or chart that will make your point — and move on. Give yourself and your audience a breather.
That leads us to our second principle:
2. Breathe life into your numbers
There’s often more to the story than what the numbers tell you, and that could be even more compelling than the number you’re looking for. Here’s a simple example: Many articles today, like this one from the Economic Policy Institute, use charts to show the increasing amount of wage inequality between the top 10% of income earners and the remaining 90%.
We see the lines go up and to the right over time, but we don’t see the people moving in and out of these statistical categories, the trends of people’s lives within the larger data. For example, this article uses data to debunk what it calls the “income mobility myth” and makes the argument that Americans are, in fact, constantly moving up and down the economic ladder.
What might that data tell you about people, wealth, politics, careers, immigration, and so many other important topics? The point is this: Sometimes the big story is what that number doesn’t tell you. Maybe there are important stories buried beneath the surface of your headline stats that your audience needs to know to make those critical decisions.
Also, while it’s important to know how to find and interpret data gold, and to realize there’s always another layer to dig into, it’s equally if not more important to not rely solely on data to communicate effectively. Data doesn’t provide insights or context. It doesn’t have a heart and doesn’t walk and talk. Data alone won’t tell your audience how the numbers affect them. Nor will it persuade them to care about your story.
But it takes time to both unearth and explain those stories, which leads us to our last point:
3. Give yourself time
To find the most important data to influence your stakeholders, and to dig into the story beneath the numbers, you need time. Unfortunately, we often have too much data and too little time. This might seem tangential, but it may be the most critical of all: Give yourself the time to find the story you need to tell for the audience you’re hoping to influence. It may include all of the same data you used to tell a nearly identical story to another audience. But every audience is at least a little different from the others.
You’ll have a greater chance of delivering cohesive, well-organized, audience-centric stories if you step back from the data and try to walk in the shoes of your audience. What do they really want (and need!) to know? What pain points or challenges do they have that you can help solve? What’s happening in their world? How would you tell them your story if it was just you and them talking, one on one, over a cup of coffee? In other words, take the time to humanize your data, to turn the valuable insights you’ve uncovered into actionable recommendations that will resonate with your audience.
Do you remember the five W’s of information gathering — who, what, where, when, and why? Your big idea is the “what” in that list — what your data and your story are all about, in one short statement. But what if you had a clear, bold big idea in mind from the start? That’s great. It means you can devote more time to making your data and insights more cohesive, more human, and more likely to be heard and acted upon.
Transform data coal into storytelling diamonds
There’s no denying the value of data in business and in our lives. We’re surrounded by it, and we are all constantly using it or being influenced by it, in one form or another. But for anyone who wants to craft communications that inspire action, the real power of data lies in how you use it to tell a great story. The next time you climb a mountain of data, keep in mind that it’s coal waiting to be transformed into diamonds for the story you want to tell.
So what happens when it’s time to deliver your data story? What if life throws you a curveball and your presentation time is suddenly cut short? Our “Worst-case Scenario Survival Guide for Presenters” has answers. Read it now.