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A short podcast for busy leaders from MIT SMR.

Every Number Tells a Story

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Stop me if you’ve lived this one before. You have a compelling idea — a real game changer — with the data to back it up. You stand in front of a roomful of peers and decision makers and make an iron-clad case based on clear evidence as to why the company should move forward with your proposal.

It is your moment of triumph. The crowd’s reaction? Scattered polite applause. A handful of flat-faced nods of acknowledgment that confirm you exist and have just spoken. A poorly stifled yawn. Several next moves in Words with Friends.

What happened? How could they not see the value? The data shows it!

If you were to ask Nancy Duarte, she’d likely tell you that you were missing the story behind the data. People are not persuaded by numbers (and certainly not by numbers alone), explains the author of Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story. They are persuaded by drama — a compelling narrative, a sympathetic hero, a mighty challenge to overcome.

If you want to win people over to your idea, you need to take your data and turn it into a story. In this week’s episode, Duarte spins us a tale that demonstrates the power of these three big points for bringing your data to life and winning people over:

  1. You need to have the guts and intuition to create a point of view from your data.
  2. You need to understand the three-act story structure and use it to frame how you communicate the actions you want people to take.
  3. You need to understand who the humans are who are driving the numbers and communicate with them in a way that helps change the numbers in the future.

Listen to the full episode here or subscribe via Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

For Further Reading
Nancy Duarte is a communication expert and author of DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story. For additional information, visit her site, follow her on Twitter, or read her book.

Transcript

Nancy Duarte: I went through thousands and thousands of slides that we’ve done, data slides for the top performing brands in the whole world. And believe it or not, every time they had very complicated data to explain, they boiled it down to one of those three charts ⁠— a pie, a bar, or a line.

Nancy Duarte: Too much data and data that’s unclear is actually slowing down organizations. It’s actually slowing down the C-suite.

Nancy Duarte: It absolutely takes a human of great intuition and great insight to say, “Here are the things we need to do, now that we have found this insight or opportunity in the data.”

Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each episode, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.

One of the great promises of our economy is the ability we have to collect more and more data from every nook and cranny of people’s lives. Scary as that can be in some contexts, for organizations, more and better data should mean that we’ll be able to make better and better decisions. Alas, today’s guest says, “Not so fast.”

Nancy Duarte: The tools we’re using today to explore data and aggregate data are fascinating, and they do these crazy beautiful visualizations that are interactive — you could explore them all day long. But when it comes to communicating, there really are only three ways to visualize it so people can understand what you are talking about very clearly. And that’s the pie, the line, and bar. I went through thousands and thousands of slides that we’ve done, data slides for the top performing brands in the whole world. And believe it or not, every time they had very complicated data to explain, they boiled it down to one of those three charts — a pie, a bar, or a line.

Paul Michelman: That’s Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design and author of several books, including DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story. She argues that even as we possess exponentially more data year over year — it’s the ability to tell a story from the data that makes a difference for businesses. And too few people in too few organizations have that skill.

Nancy Duarte: Too much data and data that’s unclear is actually slowing down organizations. It’s actually slowing down the C-suite. Decisions that used to be able to be made rapidly now are wanting to be verified or wanting to have data proof that it’s the right direction. You can roll around in the data all day long, and there’s vats of it to roll around in. You won’t be successful until you cultivate your intuition, because no decisions are made with [inaudible] about a small percent of intuition coupled with the data to make the great decisions in the future.

Paul Michelman: That means that lots of companies — maybe even yours, dare I say — are spending untold fortunes on data collection but not getting a whole lot back in return.

Nancy Duarte: The biggest communication problem is empathy. We don’t know always how to assemble and construct information that the other person can receive, process quickly, and be decisive on. So if you look at the people who explore the data, a lot of times they find the insight, and they just want to flick it to someone — either in a higher pay grade, or they just really don’t want the responsibility of taking a stance on the number or the data. And that’s the difference between an individual contributor and a leader — the ones that are willing to learn how to tell the story that’s in the data.

Paul Michelman: This idea, then, has big implications for the workplace, where storytelling skills are not a traditional job requirement.

Nancy Duarte: Data doesn’t speak for itself, because it needs a storyteller to tell what it means. So often we go into the data, we see an insight from the data, but struggle to articulate the action from the data. So by using and applying storytelling principles, which are classic persuasive communication structures, you’re able to convey what you found in the data and the action that needs to happen from the data. And this will speed up decision-making in any organization.

Paul Michelman: Duarte says there are three main storytelling tropes that we can borrow. The first is to take a point of view. And then to state what is at stake, so people clearly understand what the decision around the data will mean for the company.

Nancy Duarte: Your point of view needs to have a verb in it. It’s the action that you’re asking people to take from the data and what is at stake if they don’t take that action.... In storytelling, it might be called the elixir — it’s the one thing that everybody’s going for. It’s the goblet of desire at the end, right? So you have to define what that is. The point of view might be something like: We need to divest our services division immediately. That’s a point of view that you found in the data. And then the stakes are: If we don’t, we’re going to burn through too much of our cash. So that’s what is at stake if you don’t act upon what you found in the data.

Paul Michelman: Next, employ the classic storytelling structure — three acts.

Nancy Duarte: So [at] the beginning, you’re always stating like: Well, this is our current reality. The middle of a story is always that messy middle where all the tension and conflict is. So the second act of your story is where you state the messy part of the data: what’s broken in the data, what are you trying to change about the data. And then the third act is your data point of view, where you say: Therefore, we need to do this action to have this kind of outcome in this stakes.

Paul Michelman: And last, but not least, you must humanize the data.

Nancy Duarte: You do that by understanding who the hero is in the data. [It] might be a patient or a user, an employee, a partner, could be a humanitarian or a team — these are the people that you’re trying to get [to] move the data in a desirable direction in the future. But sometimes there’s an adversary that’s pressuring them to head in the wrong direction — it could be mindsets, competitors, bureaucracy, technology — and you need to understand who the people are that are moving the direction you want it to go and who are the villains or adversaries that are putting pressure on them. And once you understand that, you’ll communicate [to] them in a way that will inspire them to move the data [in] the direction that you need it to go.

When you’re communicating with executives, you would use the hero and adversary framework to help them understand the effort, the human effort, that it’s going to take to help this opportunity or problem be solved. So you wouldn’t necessarily say this is the hero and this is the adversary. It’s like an empathy tool for you to understand and walk in the shoes of those that you’re trying to get to have turnaround future data.

Paul Michelman: In this hero/adversary setup, the problems or solutions don’t even necessarily need to be human.

Nancy Duarte: A disease could be personified as an adversary. Or even when you’re looking at a revenue, or you’re looking at sales, there [are] all kinds of insights that you could yield from revenue being low, revenue being high. Having conversations with the people that are driving revenue [is] what will give insights to solve what kind of action needs to be taken from the data. So sometimes it’s explicit in the data itself, and other times you may have to make phone calls, you may have to do investigating, you may have to have surveys. There [are] ways to figure out: What are the things blocking the data from going the direction we want, and how do we understand the human mindset and the human heart on the other end of that information?

Paul Michelman: And what’s this data story’s happy ending? What does a business that applies these methods look like?

Nancy Duarte: If you can learn to communicate in a way and tee up insights from data in a way executives care about and in a way they are measured, what will happen is decisions will be made quicker. And we can’t be careless about the speed we move in. You have to be intentional. So if it’s communicated in a way that is clear and brief, and the action is very clear, we’ll make decisions much faster and much more carefully.

Paul Michelman: That’s Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design and author of DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story.

Time for the takeaways. The three big points you need to remember are....

Number one:

Nancy Duarte: You need to have the guts and intuition to actually form a data point of view.

Paul Michelman: Number two:

Nancy Duarte: You need to understand the three-act story structure, so you could use it as a framing device as you communicate your action you need taken.

Paul Michelman: And number three:

Nancy Duarte: You need to understand who the humans are that are driving the numbers [in] the direction they are and determine a way to communicate with them so they can change the numbers in the future.

Paul Michelman: And that’s this week’s Three Big Points. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. We will be forever in your debt if you’d take a moment to rate our program or post a review on Apple Podcasts.

Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producer is Mackenzie Wise.

Three Big Points is made possible thanks to the generous support of Cloudera.

Special thanks to Deborah Gallagher, Lauren Rosano, Jennifer Martin, Richard Marx, Michael Barrette, Jinette Ramos, and Karina van Berkum for all they do to make this show possible.