How should data professionals craft a narrative around their findings to contribute more strategically? In a recent episode of Data Chats—a PragmaticLive podcast by Pragmatic Institute and The Data Incubator—host Chris Richardson is joined by Christopher Laubenthal. Christopher is a data and visualization consultant for Lockton Companies, information designer, data visualization designer, podcaster and the creator of EdWise. Listen to the conversation in full or read the write-up below.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q: Tell me a little bit about how storytelling plays a role in your data.
Storytelling is my everything because it starts with the premise. My job is to parse a story for the data. Once we start to get the results back, I’m beginning to think about how those results relate to the context. How do these results relate to the challenges, the problems and the prompt? And I start to think, how can I compellingly make this story come alive?
I quite literally use the storytelling pyramid that a lot of us learned in school. Which is the current state, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action and new state. I also make sure that the story has clear application to strategies and problems that have existed in the company.
Q: How do you tell better stories with data, and why do you think that is a challenge for so many people in data science?
First, you have to have a focal point. But the challenge here is how do I pick what I think is the most important thing? And if I’m wrong, will they think I’m wrong all the time?
And so here’s the deal: Get over it. Because you could be.
You can’t keep giving them tables and saying, it’s not my job to provide insight, it’s not my job to bridge the context, because they’ll let you go. They’re in a bubble where they’re constantly having to make decisions. What they want more than anything is insight wrapped in a story. I would spend time hammering down their:
That becomes your secondary dataset.
You need to become the data person who is speaking their language and understands that strategy is at the heart of their decision-making process. You need to ask yourself, how can I use what they’ve told us about strategy? Be thoughtful about it, and then write down their responses, because guess what? You might spot something that they don’t know.
When was the last time the data person gave strategic feedback to the C-suite on a lack of management around strategic objectives?
Q: Communication is a two-way street between data analysts and the people they work with. If you have one-way communication, then you’re failing in some way. But it’s also hard because data analysts aren’t necessarily given strategic information. How would you recommend facilitating these conversations?
First, data professionals are amazing at doing the homework. If [the stakeholders] are not giving you the information, I assure you somewhere there is an internal document on the intranet for your company with the strategy—if not the minutiae of the specific quarterly goals, then at least a purpose, a vision, a mission, and some key indicators.
Second, go to your direct report and say, what we did was great for the past, but we want to give you insight into the future, which means adding in story and understanding so that we can make your job easier. And you can focus on the bigger picture issues and provide that much more insight into the system. But to do that, we need a special tool and it doesn’t cost us any money— it’s strategic documentation now.
We’re only going to use this information to embed a story and validation to this work. It doesn’t have to be the yearly review with the full board. It can be a regional thing.
Who’s going to tell the story better, the person who thinks they understand the data or the person who both wrote the data and did the analysis?
Now, the key here is to make sure that the discussion is about lifting them up. This is where you need to think strategically about what they can do if they had that out of the way. It’s okay to say things like, “Janet, what would you do if every quarter you didn’t lose four days to this prep cycle we’re on? What if we could be more active on the narrative development angle?”
Third, find champions in the building, because I’m trying to describe data science in a way that builds bridges instead of walls. And being a little bit vulnerable.
Q: I’d like to know your thoughts on vulnerability. Maybe you could share potential data failures or missed opportunities, or where you put yourself out there.
Sometimes the direct pathway is indirect. Life is not a Sudoku puzzle with one answer. It’s a game of high stakes chess where we don’t know the other player.
The first thing I would say is when you begin to embrace vulnerability, innovation begins. You start to have connections that you didn’t before. Importantly, you start to get information about the problem that you didn’t have already. However, being vulnerable and opening up your design process leads to the chance for successes and failures.
If we’re going to be more than just numbers, our design has to be intuitive and that’s different based on audience. So, the more interactions you have with your audience and the more vulnerability you’re able to engender, the more feedback you’re going to get.
One example I have for you related to is this:
I was working at UKC as an event coordinator for continuing medical education. For every event there we had Likert scores. It was a fairly large amount of data. So on the left hand, you’d have individuals that we had who were public speakers, and the columns were different events. And then each box was a score.
I had additional data about those speakers. I knew what hospital they were from. I knew whether they were a man or a woman. I presented the analysis to our board, and it was interesting because we found that women were a full point less than the men speakers.
I’d been in the reviews and I had gone to every single one of those events. The women were no less amazing than the men. They were just as competent and had similar backgrounds. This leads one to believe that perhaps there was a bit of bias in the audience.
Guess what, when you’re dealing with doctors and nurses and pharmacists, implicit bias on the ranking of physicians in educational settings is not necessarily the biggest fire in the building. For me, being a young 20-something-year-old, it certainly felt like the biggest fire of the building.
That’s one of the challenges. When we talk about opportunities, the closer you get to strategy, the more you’re going to have a conflict of what you think is valuable and what they think is valuable.
You bridge that gap by respecting their point of view, fighting with them in an honorable way, passionately making your case about how this thing that you’ve identified will meet their needs, but then ultimately taking it on the chin. If they decide to go the other way, don’t be disgruntled about it.
If you want to play the game, you have to be okay when you lose.
Q: How do you suggest we have impassioned dialogue, but also be civil and productive about it at the same time?
The very first thing we must do is we must disengage our identity from data. We are more than just data. We are mothers, fathers, husbands, sisters, Christians, Muslims, Red Sox fans or Yankees, etc. We have all these different identities. The reason that feels so red hot at first (and we don’t say this out loud) is because we feel like they’re not saying that the data is bad; they’re saying we’re bad.
We should hear that the data is bad. First and foremost, we need to start to make peace with that process of being outside of something called “strategic risk consulting.” That’s step one.
Step two is to practice the conversation. Practice with a friend. I assure you, there will be a little bit of levity in the room. There will be a little bit of working through it, because you get to play the role of the person who challenges rather than the person who defends. That’s how you get better.
Here are some steps to keep a peaceful conversation:
- Strengthen yourself as a person
- Practice keeping the peace in the moment
- Use verbal strategies to keep the peace
- Prepare a pathway for success
What everyone wants to know is the pathway to success.
Visualize your development cycle and keep day counts. Here’s an example:
- Here we had 26 projects.
- This is what they look like.
- This is what our development process looks like.
- Let me walk you through the steps: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
- This is where all the things are in that particular cycle.
- Here’s the bottleneck.
- Here’s why I think it’s a bottleneck.
- Here’s the number of days: notice a week, two weeks, seven months…
Be able to go through steps with kindness in your heart. Realize that they need you and that’s why they hired you, but that doesn’t give you the right to make their decisions for them.
Set up a time to meet with them afterward in order to get more insight into the status of the company. That can make things a little easier.
For instance, you might find out that there’s a big merger coming, and they tell you the strategy surrounding that. At that point, when you bring them data information, you’re going to be a lot less offended by their decision if you have more insight into how that decision was made. Because imagine you didn’t have the merger knowledge.
Now you can say, “Hey I’m going to show you x information, just so you can see it. I know it doesn’t align with our immediate needs, but you should see it anyway for a frame of reference.” They’ll end up enjoying the information at that point, rather than becoming annoyed.
Q: If you were going to give two pieces of advice to a data analyst or a data team, what could they do tomorrow to get started or to improve?
Tip #1: Do your homework.
- Ask for the strategic documents, the goals, the accounting sheet
- Ask around for group meeting presentations
- Study the profile of presentations
- See if people are invoking the speech of all the documentations
- Understand the expectations of the audience
Tip #2: Have a conversation with leadership about your homework.
- Say things like, “Hey boss I would like us to level up our contextual understanding of leadership strategy, so that we can embed that strategy.”
- Pick the best person to talk to in the C-suite and say, “We want you to give us feedback on the profile that we’ve developed for the people we’re trying to serve and lift up.”
Q: Any recommendations for further reading?
- Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay
- Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Kerry Patterson, and Joseph Grenny
- Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations by Scott Berinato
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