Communicate Data Better



Armed with a limitless supply of data we can understand our world more thoroughly than just a decade ago. If we listen closely to these numbers, they can tell us exactly what we need to do to succeed. But ignoring them can be costly. Data ignorance is a real business killer in today’s information-driven environment. Make sure you’re using data effectively to distinguish yourself and advance your business.

Data literacy is a digital age imperative. “Today’s most effective leaders have an excellent command of data,” says Michael Koppenheffer, executive director of content strategy for The Advisory Board Company, a global research, technology and consulting firm advising 230,000 leaders in 5,000 organizations. Michael explains, “they (leaders) understand what data is for and understand how it can help them… and they know how to ask data-driven questions.” If you truly aspire to inhabit the corner office, get busy: think about data through out the day and figure out how to incorporate it into your everyday work life.

“Data is everywhere,” says Michael, “we are all surrounded by it, yet people generally don’t have the skills they need to use it and let it improve their performance.” He says our educational system is partly to blame for our collective inability to better harness information. In high school, most of us saw calculus as the pinnacle of our math studies. Michael thinks this is wrong; statistics should play a more prominent role in our educational development. We find ourselves looking at the proliferation of data in the past couple of decades, but lacking the skills to grasp the big picture of the numbers were looking at and unable to put them into proper context for our audiences.

You don’t need to be a Stats Genius

Michael jokes that he got his worst grade in business school from his statistics class, but this didn’t hold him back from learning how to incorporate data into his day-to-day business dealings. You don’t need to be a statistics genius, he maintains, you just have to know how to use data. The skills Michael deems essential are the abilities to:

  • Summarize and aggregate data. Make observations about data leading to fresh insights
  • Compare data. Understand the differences and similarities between data objects. What new information can you glean from the numbers?
  • Incorporate statistical information. Use your findings in a meaningful way. Include data in your reports, presentations, emails and conversations.
  • Validate data. Make sure your data are accurate and tell a truthful story

Michael’s Advisory Board colleagues put together an infographic to get professionals to think more about data and the role it can play in advancing their business goals… and quite possibly their careers. It identifies five principles to better help you incorporate data into your everyday work life:

  • Be Data-Literate. Understand what you’re measuring and what makes it meaningful
  • Be Curious. See what data can do to help you answer questions
  • Be Action-Oriented. Use data to focus on your goals
  • Be Communicative. Incorporate data in your presentations, reports and day-to-day communications to prove your point
  • Be Skeptical. Make sure your data is helping you provide the right analysis

Check out Advisory Board’s infographic here:

We can all aspire to becoming data-wielding leaders. Classes in statistics or sociological methods can help you see data’s bigger picture, but often what’s needed is just better awareness. Michael suggests you do like the Nike ad campaign begs… and “just do it.”

While that suggestion may seem like a non-suggestion, there’s actually some logic behind it. Most of us are accustom to applying a rigid prescription to learning a new skill. But it’s not so straight forward when it comes to incorporating data into your business life. And this isn’t the first time I received this advice from an experienced communicator. While interviewing for my book, Supercommunicator, I met Alberto Cairo, a world-renowned infographic designer and professor at the University of Miami. Alberto has produced countless infographics that beautifully incorporate data to tell compelling stories. His recommendation was pretty much the same as Michael’s… Both men tell me it’s all about opening your eyes and allowing data to enter your world.

Become a Data Critic

Spend more time looking at how others use data; become a data critic. When perusing articles see what authors do to make numbers come to life. Do the figures hang out there in space? Or is the data organized to produce compelling stories? With so many numbers being hurled at us in these digital times, our simple human brains are struggling to keep up with so much information. We need to access data in a friendly manner if it is to make sense to us and actually stick as knowledge. Ask yourself: did the author of this article do a satisfactory job of presenting the data? Is it summarized well? Did the author incorporate facts naturally and meaningfully into the content? Or did the data just sit there like a day old dried out roast?

Today’s information consumer wants to be spoon-fed. The only way to make sure data becomes meaningful to the user is to present it in an appealing manner. This is why inforgraphics are increasingly in popularity and why storytelling is being touted as a business essential. Packaging data in an interesting format is an imperative. Is the author of the article you’re reading trying to engage you? Better yet, are they succeeding?

As you critique others’ work, look at their source data. Work your way backwards from the finished article or graphic. Pay attention to how they spun the raw numbers. See how they let a story develop from the source. If you spend just a little more time with data-infused content, you will slowly start to see the infrastructure behind the story. The more you train yourself to comprehend how others incorporate data, the more comfortable you will be in taking charge of your own numbers.

As your skills develop, you’ll become more mindful of how to read data so that you can create your own data-driven communications. You truly will become a critic as you notice that too many of the news stories or infographics out there are misleading. Watch out for data integrity. Sadly, many of the stories you see in social media or even in leading newspapers are exaggerated or taken out of context to create a more compelling story.

Advancing your Work with Data

For the truly dedicated data student, challenge yourself by thinking up your own story or attempt to create an infographic. Pick raw data from a business news source – find something in The New Yorker (they often feature data-intensive content) or a random press release – and see how you can mold that information into something compelling. To produce an infographic start experimenting with Illustrator and Excel. Don’t expect too much at first, but see how you develop a relationship with data. Gradually, you will see results.

Sound too implausible? Scott Klein, an editor of ProPublica, an independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism, begs to differ. He’s all about the do-it-yourself model of news applications. His Pulitzer Prize winning news service is known for its broad variety of infographics and tools that bring data to life. But here’s the interesting part… Scott tells me that most of their news apps are developed by liberal arts grads, not by high-powered programmers. His “highly trainable staff,” as he calls them, are able to search databases and develop stories from there. “Teaching them the code is the easy part,” says Scott. His staff has to have good journalistic instincts first.