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How to tell stories with data: 5...

“Stories—there’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” — Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

Let’s face it—with constant disruption from smartphones and gadgets, people suffer from short attention spans. You’d think that this only impacts the younger generation, but a 2015 study showed that an average adult can only focus for a total of 8 seconds as compared to 12 seconds in 2000!

Gone are the days when people churn out pages and pages of PowerPoint slides to drive home their points during business meetings and discussions. Not only does it cause ‘death by PowerPoint’, people’s attention dies with it too.

It’s time you heed Master Tyrion’s words and refresh your approach by using story. Take a good book as an example. People invest their time reading it because of the captivating narrative, relatable characters, plot points that hold the reader in suspense, and a conclusive ending that gets them raving about it for days. You’d do well to take a leaf out of a good storybook!

Yet, there’s another important element to delivering an impactful story, and that is DATA.

Data is the backbone of your story, supporting your findings and making your arguments more convincing. By using data in your story, you’ll be seen as more trustworthy, leading your audience to take notice, participate in the discussion, and decide the next course of action.

Let’s look at 5 ways to create an impactful, compelling story using data.

1) Know your audience

Before crafting your story, you need to know what type of audience you’re dealing with. In a business setting, it can be working-level personnel, middle managers, or top-level executives. By knowing this upfront, you can tailor a story that gets your audience ‘hooked’ rather than getting a ‘lost-in-translation look’ from them.

For example, if your audience is engineers, you can spend more time explaining how you derive the numbers as these would be more meaningful to them at an operational level. As for middle managers, you can go straight to the point with summarised datasets, depicted via graphs or charts. And for your top management, painting a concise story that aligns with strategic imperatives or business roadmap would serve them better.

2) Identify a story based on data

Analyse the data you have to identify what story to tell. This is where your data analytics tools can help in surfacing trends, correlations, outliers, and abnormalities. The patterns and the relationships you find can form the basis of your story.

Let’s say you were inspecting total sales from the last 10 years and you observed that the sales volume consistently peaked at every year-end. As there’s a drive to increase profitability and you have yet to reach the target, you can build your story around ways to increase sales for the rest of the months.

It’s easy to discard outliers and numbers that you can’t explain off hand, but they may provide the missing piece to the whole puzzle. Using the same total sales example, you may notice a lone spike in the middle of 2018 and a huge drop in early 2019. These can be a ripe opportunity for you to bring them out in the open and analyse the reasons behind them further.

Be objective and impartial in presenting your data. It doesn’t do any good if you’re showcasing data that people expect or highlighting the good parts of the business. As the adage goes, “speak the truth even when it hurts”. The same applies (and even more so!) to your data storytelling.

3) Build your narrative, make it about the audience!

Using the same tired format of showing statistics and recommendations won’t help you in your mission to deliver a hard-hitting story that inspires action.

You need to structure a coherent, fluid narrative. Like any other good story, your audience should feel like they’re being immersed in a journey. It should lay down the context first to get everyone on the same page. Introduce the main characters right from the start—those who have a stake in seeing this story get a happy ending. It could be the sales and marketing team, CRO, and CFO in matters relating to sales and revenue.

Then, you move on to the challenge or conflict. This is the part where people usually say, “the plot thickens”. It’s best to highlight the challenge that your audience can resonate or empathise with. And the closer it hits home, the more your audience will feel invested in the story. In our total sales example, the challenge could be trying to meet the revenue target where people have failed to do so in the past years.

With the scene-setting and the challenge adequately played out, you’d have commanded your audience’s full attention. This is where you bridge to the most suspenseful part, the reason for telling the story in the first place—resolution and conclusion. You could bring forth your own recommendations or brainstorm ideas with the people about how to tackle the challenges.

By building a resonating narrative, you’d have more chances of getting people to follow up with action plans and decision-making.

4) Use visuals

Another challenge in telling story using data is to ensure that people can make sense of it. Can they understand a table of rows and columns containing numbers of the last 10 years of total sales? Admit it—It’s an uphill task to examine, discover patterns, and draw conclusions from a single, busy table!

This is where visual aids come in handy. Your audience will have a better grasp of understanding and uncovering patterns of the total sales if the numbers are plotted in a line graph, tracked by month or year. If you want to see the breakdown of sales according to departments, pie charts can depict those. And if you want to show the associated supply-demand chain, then a flowchart can best describe it.

You can use other visuals like histograms, scatter plots, infographics, and videos too to enhance people’s understanding of the topic at hand.

5) Ensure you have clean, accurate data

All the groundwork you’ve done would be for nought if your data isn’t correct. What’s worse than having a bored audience? An audience that acts based on wrong data!

You’d mostly use core data areas like customer, product, and supplier masters to support your story, especially one that drives business or operational initiatives. This is where you need to have a robust master data management. It facilitates consolidation, unification, and update of data from different systems so you can access an authoritative, single version of the truth. And you need to ensure data quality at all times through ongoing checks and validations.

With accurate and updated master data to support your story, you’ll be assured of sound action plans and well-informed decisions coming out of it. This is the most crucial element that you should pay attention to.

Tell your story with MDO

Now that we know the best practices and the importance of clean data as a foundation for an action-driven story, the need for a master data management and governance solution becomes more urgent.

MDO is a master data management platform that doesn’t just automate your end-to-end master data processes. Apart from unifying and harmonising data to obtain a complete 360° view, it ensures ongoing data quality through business rules, validations, and workflow-based approvals.

It has analytics tools like dashboards and widgets for end-to-end visualisation of data to help you paint a vivid picture for your story.

MDO is a complete solution for master data management, data quality, and data analytics. MDO governs your data so you can focus on crafting a compelling story that triggers an emotional response in your audience at a visceral level.

Written by: Shigim Yusof