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From data to narrative: Getting the most value from information assets

Editor’s note: The excerpt below is from the introduction of Nancy Duarte’s newest book, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

There’s nonstop buzz about data, big data, small data, deep data, thick data, and machines that are learning to analyze data. Many organizations are doing cool things that are supposed to improve our lives because of, you guessed it, data. Of course, not all answers to organizational problems or opportunities will pop out of an algorithm.

Data is limited to recording the past by cataloging numerical artifacts of what has happened. Seeking historical truth is vital to good decision-making, and those who work with data are, by nature, truth-seekers. Yet, as you grow into leadership positions, you’ll spend most of your time communicating about the future state others need to create with you. Communicating data shapes our future truth—our future facts. Communicating it well is central to shaping a future in which humanity and organizations flourish.

Insights from the past inform the direction we need to go and the actions we need to take, but getting others to move forward with these actions only happens when someone communicates well.

The foundation of effective communication is empathy. Ensuring that others understand what you are proposing must trump any personal or professional preferences you have regarding data. A chart that is clear to you could be perplexing to many others. It’s not that your audience isn’t smart; it’s that they are coming from a different background, and often have a different depth of knowledge about data analysis than you do. What you may think is oversimplifying will be perceived by others as blessedly clear.

DataStory is about communicating data, and that requires tailoring your message to those receiving it. Most data insights reveal the need for a recommendation (also known as a proposal, action plan, or report.) Sometimes, approval for the action you’re recommending comes from the executive suite. The best communicators make data concise and clearly structured while telling a convincing and memorable story.

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Creating visual and verbal clarity directs attention to key findings so others don’t have to work hard to understand why your recommendation should be approved. Mastering the skill of efficient and inspiring communication pays great dividends.

Communicating data effectively isn’t about creating sexy charts and showcasing your smarts. It is about knowing the right amount of information to share, in what way, and to whom.

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Invest Time in Communication Skills

While the number of jobs that utilize data is increasing rapidly across all industries, a command of data science isn’t the skill most desired by employers. Strong communication is.

In late 2018, Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, shared findings of a study the company conducted on skill gaps in the work force. Using their Talent Insights tool, job openings posted online were compared to the skill sets of candidates available to fill them. The number one skill gap was soft skills. Out of a soft skill gap of a whopping 1.6 million, 993,000 were uired oral communication skills, and 140,000 required writing skills. Weiner concluded that people with strong communication skills will not be replaced by emerging technology such as artificial intelligence.

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Another body of research conducted by Burning Glass Technology for IBM found that employers require data scientists to be more proficient in soft skills than almost all other jobs. They want employees who can couple data exploration with strong problem-solving and writing skills.

Notice that creativity is on the list, too. Granted, this does not mean they are looking for folks to get creative with numbers. Instead, they’re looking for those who are inventive problem-solvers who can use their gut to formulate a point of view about data and invent alternate futures based upon data discoveries.

These soft skills are rarely developed through coursework in science, finance, or statistics; they’re cultivated in the liberal arts disciplines. We can’t all go back to school to learn them, but the good news is that the methods of communication addressed in this book help close the skill gap.

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Embrace the Power of Story

In DataStory you’ll learn to craft a recommendation that inspires action from data using storytelling techniques. Leaders in all sectors spend large sums of money collecting and analyzing data, yet the value comes when someone convincingly communicates what data reveals.

I pulled thousands of data slides from our clients at Duarte, Inc. We took a cross-section of data slides of the highest-performing brands in the world from a wide range of sectors, including the consulting, consumer, technology, financial, and healthcare industries. My team classified the chart types, and, most importantly, the words used in relation to data.

As a student of storytelling, I’ve come to have great respect for language, but communication can be hard. But the payoffs are extraordinary. If you put the work into developing communication skills, you’ll see your career and company do things you never thought imaginable.

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