Success as an accountant often lies in being able to "speak" finance to different areas and levels of the business. In today's data-driven business world, this essentially means being able to communicate data.
What's the best way to communicate data to any audience? Turn it into a story.
In this article, I look at best practice tips for turning data into an engaging story that will encourage understanding and inspire action.
Why we need to tell more stories with data
As a data and performance management consultant, I see as one of the biggest problems companies simply dumping information on people in its raw form through complex dashboards, lengthy performance reports, and overly complex graphs that no one understands. When I help organisations improve their approaches to performance management and data reporting, we often focus on improving data storytelling.
It reminds me of a version of a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Turning data into a succinct, actionable story takes time — certainly more time than dumping masses of data on people and hoping they'll pick through it to find the insights they need.
People are busier than ever. Faced with a wall of data, with no obvious insights to pull out, how likely is it they'll sift through the minutiae in the hope of unearthing interesting nuggets? And even if they do sift through them, how do you know they'll arrive at the right conclusions? When you just give people numbers and graphs, you could get lots of interpretations.
That's why, instead of writing long letters, we need to write short, informative notes. We need to package data into easily digestible stories. By telling stories, not only do you make sure the core message is clear, but you also give people in the organisation the ingredients to understand and retell that story.
Becoming a master storyteller with data
The first place to start is your audience. To whom are you communicating this information? What do they already know about the issues being discussed? What else do they want and need to know? And what will they do with the information?
With your audience firmly in mind, you can then begin to think about communicating your information effectively. Remember, what you want to do here is communicate insights, not details. You need to help people in the business interpret key data so that they can make smarter, more informed decisions, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to extract and understand the insights. The easier it is to do that, the easier it is for them to take action.
When it comes to communicating insights effectively, it's hard to beat the front page of a newspaper. In other words, like a newspaper, you'll need:
- A compelling headline: This short, snappy description should frame the story you want to tell and highlight the issue at hand. It should explain what the data means, essentially. Where you have been measuring a metric in order to answer critical questions (such as, "Who are our top performers?"), it's a good idea to use the headline to reiterate the question that the data aims to answer or, even better, answer the question.
- A useful visualisation of the data: Visuals are a great way to convey information because they're quick and easy to understand, they're memorable, and they're much more likely to hold the reader's attention than a full page of text or numbers. Be sure to think about your audience here: Is a graph really the best way to communicate your message, or would something like a traffic light visual or infographic work better? Plenty of fantastic data visualisation tools are on the market, such as Power BI, Tableau, and Qlik.
- A short but informative narrative description: A little bit of narrative is important because, without it, people can interpret the data in different ways. By including a short narrative that supports the headline and visual, you can ensure everyone understands the key insights in the same way. Use this as your opportunity to present the key facts, explain the context behind the information, and highlight the key messages that should support decisions and action.
If you must include detailed data, consider putting it in an appendix or supplying a web link to further information.
Drawing inspiration from other master storytellers
As well as learning from the way journalists package their front-page stories, there are plenty of other inspiring storytellers to learn from. For example:
- TED Talks provide a great example of conveying information while telling a story. These talks are short, easy to digest, and often supported by helpful visuals (without being overloaded with data).
- Perhaps you have a friend who has a knack for spinning a good yarn. What is it that keeps you hanging on his or her every word? Is it a particular type of language, the way they paint a clear image, or their use of humour?
- Today, we can even tell stories that engage people's senses. Data visualisation experts Susanne Jaschko and Moritz Stefaner are turning data into food through their Data Cuisine workshops, which create edible visualisations and taste experiences of local data (see the sidebar, "Recommended Reading and Viewing", at the end of this article, for more).
Recommended reading and viewing
For more inspiration on turning your data into a compelling story, you might like to check out:
- Book, Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change With Data, Narrative, and Visuals.
- Book, Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals.
- Data Cuisine workshops.
- TED Talk, "Why Smart Statistics Are the Key to Fighting Crime" (useful as an example of pulling out actionable messages).
- TEDx Talk, "Making Data Mean More Through Storytelling" (a great example of making data engaging and fun).
Bernard Marr is a thought leader, speaker, author, and business, tech, and data adviser. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.
Are you responsible for presenting financial information to your organisation, business associates, or clients? Bring financial information to life and use it to communicate a story to an audience, through a mix of financial data, visualisation, storytelling theory, best practice, and practical application.
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