Why do we say too much? Advice for the data analyst

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 21, 2022
Filed in Business storytelling, Corporate Storytelling, Insight

We were sitting in a boardroom, all looking at the TV monitor at the end of the table. The head analyst started his talk, and we were bombarded with screens and screens of information. All the facts were there, with all the exceptions and sidebars included. The audience was confused.

Man presenting data

I spoke with the analyst and his colleagues after the presentation as part of a masterclass session, and it was clear this analyst knew his topic. He knew the vagaries of his data, his organisation’s complex policies, and how that affected the data and the needs of his audience. Yet with all this knowledge, he was missing the mark. The audience wasn’t keeping up.

We first worked on helping him move from push to pull. When someone pushes information at you, it feels like an attack, like someone poking you in the chest. We’ll bat that away or push back. But an audience typically asks questions if we show an intriguing insight followed by a pause. The audience is pulling now, and you can answer each question as they come.

That’s one way to move from push to pull. Another is to tell a story. As soon as you start with a time marker (last week, last quarter, early May), the audience sits back, wanting to know what happened. They are pulling the information. The feeling is different from being just told the facts. Mind you; all the facts are in the story. They are just conveyed in a way that’s easier to understand and remember.

This analyst was highly experienced, and his deep knowledge worked against him because he either told the audience too much or assumed the audience knew what he knew (they call that the curse of knowledge). In both cases, he was more effective if he said less and prompted questions from the audience to guide his talk.

Less experienced analysts can also say too much for a completely different reason. I’m sure we all appreciate that it takes considerable time to wrangle a dataset into submission and eke out results people might find interesting. But because of all this effort in the analysis. there’s an incredible urge to show the work that went into getting the results, to show each data point in a way that makes the audience think, “Wow, they put a lot of effort into this.” Unfortunately, the result is often incredibly dull and lacks insight because, again, it says too much.

In this case, effort should be demonstrated in the appendix. Show the central insights in your main presentation. Keep it short and punchy. And be ready for the follow-up questions. But put all the details in the appendix. Everyone will thank you for it.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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