4 Ways to Make Your Data Speak to Your Audience

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Let's say you're tasked with giving an anti-tobacco presentation to an audience of high school freshman. From the tobacco-related research out there, you know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one out of every 13 teens will die early from tobacco-related problems. You also know that numbers will be meaningless without context.

What do you do to engage the young people listening to your speech? You bring 13 of them onstage to illustrate the point. Suddenly, the numbers have real-world impact. As your youthful volunteers nervously look at one another, each silently wonders, "Will that one in 13 be me?"

Therein lies the power of solid data storytelling -- not to mention smart public speaking strategy.

Businesses have more and more data available to them, and using it is no longer optional; it's required for any company that wants to remain competitive. According to Asha Saxena, CEO and chairperson of Future Technologies, Inc., a data management firm that has partnered with Microsoft and Tableau, data is not a business element you can skip over. "Every business needs to have a strong data strategy," she says. "If they don't start looking at their data as an asset, it's going to be very difficult for them to survive."

However, businesses historically haven't contextualized their on-hand data in a clear way. In fact, more than half of organizations included in Experian's 2017 global data management benchmark report said they "rely on educated guesses or gut feelings" when making decisions based on their company's data. Many simply push out facts, hoping audience members can draw their own correct conclusions. Not surprisingly, most people can't connect the dots without a little help. That's where charts and graphs (like this one from the Washington Post showing readers for how much of their lives the U.S. has been at war) come into play.

Now, data storytelling isn't exactly a new concept. Humans have shared narratives since time immemorial. As Mike Brody, co-founder of Exago Inc. and three-time software entrepreneur, explains, "Stories are how people make sense of the world, so it follows that they'd also be our way of making sense of data." Brody sees technology as a means to facilitate storytelling with data, but points out that tech alone "cannot yet put data into human context."

Having data isn't enough; without a storyteller, the data can seem flat or unimportant. That's why it's time for businesses to not only mine their data, but also give flavor, color, and substance to the data discoveries they unearth.

Want your data to speak to your audience? Make sure the narrative you craft has everything it needs to tell a structurally sound story. Learn the rules for aligning your data and business strategies via these robust storytelling techniques:

1. Alter your data story to fit your audience.

Every audience has unique needs, and your data storytelling must resonate with your audience's personas. Are they highly educated? Socially diverse? Extremely analytical? Ideally, you want to create an emotional link between readers or listeners and your knowledge. The best scientific research papers do this well: They have a layout that allows audiences to get both an abbreviated and full-length story depending on their needs or attention span. Likewise, you should arrange your narration in a way that matters to your target prospects and stimulates them on a personal level.

2. Identify "characters" throughout your data narrative.

Every unforgettable story includes compelling characters, often portrayed in "good" or "bad" lights. As you craft your story, the good guy will be your company, and the bad guy(s) could be your competitors, the conditions of your industry's market, and, of course, your audience's pain points. The characters you choose will take action to address your narrative's conflict -- their actions and the outcomes of those actions are where you can incorporate your data into the story. As long as you're being true to the data itself and not manipulating it, you can give the characters showcasing your data any personalities you want.

3. Highlight the conflict in your data story.

Conflict makes stories more compelling, so look for the conflict point or points in your data. What's the core issue? Where are the places of friction? It may be wise to bring in a professional storyteller to help breathe life into your data. You can also team up with business intelligence vendors who offer software and platforms to foster improved data storytelling that highlights your story's conflict.

4. Give your data story a resolution and call to action.

After reading or hearing your data story, what should your audience know or do? Give them guidance and direction; otherwise, they'll just have the information and not take any further steps. For example, you may want customers or prospects to make a purchase, download a whitepaper, join your mailing list, or contact your sales representatives. Determine the overall goal and weave it into your story's conclusion.

You're sitting on a wealth of data that keeps growing daily. It's time to use all that wonderful information to your advantage. The abundant data at your fingertips can be fuel for a practically endless supply of riveting tales for your audience. Your team simply has to become creative enough to turn it into memorable narratives and visualizations, instead of never-ending spreadsheets.