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Leaders in Change | The art & the science of data storytelling

Be Kaler Pilgrim

Be Kaler Pilgrim

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We have more data than ever, and the insight available to us is vast. But so many organisations are still finding their way around what they have, and are struggling to translate between the numbers and the rest of the business.

In the latest event in our Leaders in Change series, we focused on how organisations can build meaningful connections between the numbers they have and the stories they tell.

Kindly hosted by Capital One, we invited data storyteller Emily Hunt to lead an interactive session on how we can take these numbers forward with stories, to explain what they mean, rather than just what they say, and create a true data culture.

With a diverse room of senior executives spanning financial services to charities and everything in between, there were some great conversations around how business leaders can open up the power of data.

We have a data disconnect

Emily pointed out that this is particularly true in the UK, where our education system forces us to specialise at a young age. This means that even by the time of graduating, it may have been five years or more since someone last 'did maths' as a teenager, and as these people progress through their careers, there are many who are holding on to an adolescent fear of numbers.

On the converse, those who did study maths and related subjects have often focused exclusively on how to work with data, and are encouraged to be rigid in their approach to numbers.

What this means for businesses, is that they have two conversations happening - sometimes in competition with each other,

We have numerical people and non-numerical people trying to connect, but they are talking two different languages.

Making sense of it all 

The instinct of many organisations in this age of information is often to try to add more data into the mix through market research. However, as Emily pointed out, we’re collecting so much data already, that we often hold the answer, even if we don’t know it yet. 

This point inspired some healthy debate - research certainly has a place, but it's important to know when it's needed, and when it's not. I was reminded of our May event with Jeff Gothelf, when he talked about the importance of focusing on the insights, rather than the research process, giving the example of Ford's testing of reactions to self-driving cars on the road.

To achieve their research aims, it would seem they needed to get a self-driving car out on the roads. But, they also realised that the investment and energy required to get a working prototype would be huge. So, they decided to disguise a human as a car seat instead. Same insights, much-reduced cost and effort. 

Emily talked through the example of a client that had continued to invest in huge global surveys to try to understand their route forward as a business. Rather than continue this, Emily asked to see the data sets they already had - their web traffic, their shops, their social media activity, their ad spend ... All information that the business already had, but was held in team silos, so hadn't been looked at as one picture. By looking at existing data in a new way, Emily and her team were able to refine the research needed to just three key questions, reducing the scope (and cost) of research while delivering the insights they needed.

Face your fears

From an informal show of hands, it was clear that most of our audience had had experience working with a client or a stakeholder who glazes over when talk of data starts. And almost every hand went up when asked if they'd ever lost the will to live when faced with a dry presentation of stats and graphs.

It seems clear that effective data storytelling is an art - especially if your audience is scared of numbers. So where do you start?

  • Focus on your audience

Understand what really matters to them. People fundamentally want to make their lives as easy as possible - and ideally look good doing it. How is your story helping them achieve this? This is something to think about both internally and externally. Creating personas, and building a human face on your data can be a great way to bring your story to life - but it can be a challenge for teams to emphasise if the customer profile is very different to their own. To overcome this, it can be useful to focus on behaviours and attitudes rather than pigeonholing your customers based on their age or location.

  • Keep it meaningful

Be selective with the data you talk about, and focus on what it means. There's no need to overload your audience with stats or graphs - even the most beautiful data visualisations often don't have the impact you thought they would. Rather than spending your time explaining numbers that represent what has already happened, focus on the future, and on what the business should do next.

  • Find your treasure hunters

There are invariably those who do ask to see more of the data, or question what you've said. These people are your champions, and help drive a culture of learning. Their questions can help you structure the stories you tell with your data, and help you understand what really matters.

Be ruthless

When looking at data, it can be valuable to start with a hypothesis. Many number-phobic people align their decision making with preconceived ideas - sometimes disguised as instinct or experience. These notions can be hugely useful, but it's important not to become too attached to what you think may happen. There are now so many data points available to us that it is possible to cherrypick to support hypotheses. Us humans are full of bias, and we love making assumptions - it's a hard habit to unlearn.

This can be a particular challenge for those in clientside environments, when you may not have the advantage of perspective on the insight you have. But, the first step to overcoming this is admitting that you may be working on assumptions. Even looking at the same data set you've had for years with a fresh eye can reveal new things.

Look to the outlier

Emily shared a great example of Dove's famous real beauty campaign. The inspiration came from a global research piece that covered everything from brand awareness and competitor analysis through to their customer's beauty regimes ... But the real insight came from just one small line - that just 2% of women would call themselves beautiful. This was the basis of the entire campaign.

An incredible 90% of the world's data has been created in the last two years. There are patterns and trends to be seen in just about everything. But it is where the pattern is broken, or the result breaks expectation that we can often see the inspiration we need.

The answer is in the data, you just need to know what questions to ask.

If you'd like to talk about how you might be able to bring your data to life or find out more about future events we're running, please get in touch at be@wearefutureheads.co.uk, I'd love to hear from you.

About Emily Hunt

Emily is a data storyteller and method-neutral insights guru. She serves her clients - ranging from Apple to Unilever - as a senior advisor in behaviour-led strategy, brand and communications.  Emily started her career in the States as a political operative before moving to London more than a decade ago to pursue a corporate career. Before founding 36ns, she ran the insights team at Portland, a high-end communications agency, and Edelman, the largest PR agency in the world. She's a regular commentator in the media and recently won the UK's 2018 Most Influential Female Speaker of the Year Award.

Perhaps most importantly, if you need to know what wine goes with a particular yoga pose, she might be just the one to help you. She's a WSET certified level 1 sommelier as well as a certified yoga teacher.

You can connect with Emily on Twitter and LinkedIn.