Analytics professionals need to be communicators. Just being technically proficient is longer enough. It is not enough to slap a report or dashboard together on the go. Rather, we have the responsibility to help the business get information out of their data. This is especially true as data volumes continue to grow. I wrote about this in a recent blog post.
The question though is how to best do this. Earlier this week, I came across an excellent blog post by web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik. His November 5th post provides a detailed example of how to convert a complex data set into a compelling story. I highly encourage you to spend some time reading this inspiring blog post.
Analyics are an extremely hot topic. While there is a lot of talk about it, too many companies are still failing to reap the true benefits from “bread and butter” tools such as dashboards. It’s safe to say that there is a disconnect: lot’s of talk and excitement, yet little true engagement on the business side. What’s causing the problem? It’s tempting to blame the technology.
Having worked with many organizations over the past decade, I have come to the conclusion that a majority of the problems are caused by needless complexity and by a maddening drive towards technical excellence. Let’s face it – an analytics solution is only as good as the adoption by the user community. Brilliant technology fails when people don’t know what to do with it. How can we fix this? I think we – the analytics professionals – need to look at ourselves and make some changes to the way we work and engage with the business community. It’s easy and comfortable to stay in a comfortable cocoon of technical talk and optimization. Our objective needs to be to step out of that cocoon and start communicating with the business.
Last weekend, I started reading an excellent book by Tim Elmore. The book is about communication. Tim makes the case that our society requires a different communication approach. In the past, we adored the great orators that would read a carefully scripted speech. Today, we relate to people who deliver messages that connect with us. The author drafts up a comparison between the past and today: public speakers (aka technical experts) vs communicators. When I studied this, it struck me: The content applies to our business analytics profession as well. I have taken the liberty to modify it a bit. Take a few minutes to study the table and to reflect how this might apply to your and your team:
Need to change
Let me tell you, this comparison really spoke to me. As analytics professionals, we need to make a serious effort to connect with our audience – the business. That requires us to leave the comfortable cocoon of technical talk. Here is an example: the classic requirements gathering. We interview, we document, we ask for sign-offs. The whole process is technical and it usually doesn’t help the business. It’s a process that was designed to help and protect the IT professional. A communicator on the other hand goes further than just creating a thick document. The communicator goes out of his way to really understand the business. That might require a simple prototype. It might require us to take a personal risk and ask more questions.The end result is a better analytics solution.
Here is a suggestion: Print out this table and take a look at it before you head into that next meeting or before you hand over that new dashboard. Think about your team. Are you a an analytics professional or an analytics communicator?
P.S.: I highly recommend reading Tim Elmore’s book. It’s an excellent read. There are a ton of exercises and self-assessments that help you improve your personal presentation and communication style. I have read many books about presenting and this is belongs in the category of books that can really have an impact.
The other day, I made a bold statement about presentations: many of them suck and they especially suck when it comes to presenting data. Real meaning is often hidden in complex and dense charts. The problem is sometimes amplified by poor communication skills.
PRESENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT
There is a fundamental difference between sitting in your office analyzing data and sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation. The second setting requires a lot of focus. Listening can be really hard at times and it is easy to loose track when we drop our attention for a few seconds. And there is no rewind button. Every time a new slide comes up our attention shifts to that slide. Our brain tries to make sense of it. Following the speaker during that brief moment is tough. The more complex a slide the longer this moment lasts and the higher the probability that the audience gets lost. To ensure that our messages are understood, we have to be thoughtful about how we present our data. Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your data sing:
One of the basic things I recommend is to utilize charts for presentation slides whenever we can. Reviewing raw data in a presentation setting is extremely difficult. We should not have to stare at a projector screen to make sense of data. It takes away too much focus.
Sure, there might be cases when people need to see that raw data but we can always share printed documents as backup materials if necessary. Make it simple for your listeners and visualize the data. Look at the two contrasting examples below: it takes a while to consume the table, but the line chart immediately makes sense. Even on first sight.
2. CHART TYPES
Make sure to carefully select your charts, though. Not every visualization lends itself to delivering a crisp message. Once again, the things that may work for us at our desk do not necessarily have to work when we follow a presentation. The rule of thumb is to choose the chart that can most easily be understood. That might sometimes require us to drop some information. Once again: we can always supplement our slide show with backup materials. If you have difficulties selecting the right type, take a look at some advice on this site.
But even charts can either be too complex or we load them up with too much noise: 3D, logos, gridlines, pictures and unwise choice of colors. As a result, viewers and listeners have a hard time understanding. Presentation guru and author Garr Reynolds calls for a maximization of the signal to noise ratio: eleminate everything that could stand in the way (noise) of delivering our message (signal). Take a look at the example below. There is too much going on and our eyes tend to jump around.
Let’s reduce the noise and focus on the just the signal (below). Isn’t this much better?
4. MAKE IT EASY
We should eliminate everything that stands in the way of being understood by the audience. In other words, we should make it as easy as possible for them to quickly catch the important items. We can do this by amplifying the signal. Take a look at the slide above: the headline features the key message. Also, note how the 2009 bar in the prior chart immediately pops out: This must be the year our CEO left! I can see it immediately. A simple but effective trick.
5. CREATE FOCUS
Too many slides are way too busy and people easily loose attention. My basic rule is that we should only deliver one message per slide. Don’t try to cram everything into a single slide. Remember: slides are cheap! Nobody is forcing you to deliver your message in less than ten slides. It’s up to you to decide. Allow the audience to absorb the information and then move on with your story. A simple and single message on each slide ensures that the attention is quickly refocused on you – the presenter.
The slide above is way too busy. We jump around and try to figure things out. But let’s apply the rules and also create focus on a single message that we will spread across two slides:
Try to incorporate these tips into your next presentation. They will make a big difference. And it does not have to be complicated. Applying these things will help you make meetings more effective. And by doing that you can make a big contribution towards making sure that the investment in Business Analytics does not go down the drain when we put our information on slides. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues.
Let me be blunt and honest: Too many presentations and their accompanying slide decks absolutely suck. And they especially suck when it comes to displaying and discussing data. Over the past few years, I have sat through days- worth of boring and utterly useless presentations. Such a waste! And there was so much potential: great data points and valuable information. But all this was well hidden behind complex and confusing charts. And believe it or not: that is a problem for business analytics.
THE PRESENTATION PARADOX
We spend so much time and money on implementing business analytics software. We create so many awesome reports and dashboards. There is so much potential. But way too many people take this valuable information and literally destroy it by using the trusted information to create useless and complex slides. Those slides are then presented in meetings where we try to sell ideas and we where try to make collective decisions. But due to the convoluted slides (often coupled with poor communication skills) most messages fall flat on their face. I am tempted to say that the ‘last mile’ of business analytics is broken in these cases. It’s about time to fix that.
A CRITICAL SKILL
Famous statistician and popular data guru Hans Rosling famously discussed this issue and compared the presentation of data to playing music: “…few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is. But often that’s how we present statistics: we just show the notes, we don’t play the music.” It is not enough to create a sophistcated data warehouse and some shiny reports. No, we need to make the data sing when we present it to other people an especially larger audiences. Developing solid presentation skills should therefore be high up on the priority list for anybody who works in the area of business analytics.
There is a big difference between presenting insights to an audience (meetings, events, etc.) and analyzing data at our desks. Following a presentation requires a different level of energy and focus: it is a lot harder to follow in many cases. Our brain tries to juggle processing the information on the slides while listening to the speaker. We therefore need to make it easy for our audiences to receive the messages that we have found and prepared. The reports and charts that work at our desks do not necessarily work in a meeting room. We have to think differently. And that’s the disconnect we often see and that Hans Rosling aludes to: we do not think differently and simply show confusing details when we should be showing a clear story. We are short-selling our efforts and the impact of our insights in effect.
But there is good news. Learning how to present and how to tell an inspiring story using data in a presentation does not have to be complicated. In a few days from now I will share some tips & tricks that you can put to immediate use. Start thinking about those presentations! As always, I am curious to find out what your experiences with this are.