How to present data in context – Chapter 1 Summary Storytelling with Data

Summary of Chapter 1, called “The importance of context”, of the book Storytelling with Data. Book website.

Book cover of the original book I’m talking about here, would recommend. Don’t have affiliate links, so please find it yourself in your favorite book store.

Presenting data is a scientific and fact-based endeavor, right? “Storytelling with Data” would argue that this is false.

Instead presenting data is a form of communication the same as any other presentation. And communication is always dependent on context. Every communicated sentence has a different meaning depending on who says it, in which tone and to whom. The speaker has some meaning in mind and the listener interprets it and so on. The meaning even changes based on what was said right before. Interpreted and presented data is similar.

So it is vital that you are clear on the context of your presentation and the actions that should follow after you performed it.

Let’s first look at the different moving parts that exist in this problem.

Table of Contents

The content

If you have been working with the data for a few days or even weeks, chances are you have done a lot of exploration with the data set. Maybe you tested 100 different hypotheses on the data. Even if it is tempting, you should not present all the work you did. Instead you should only present the 1 or 2 most interesting stories you found in the data. Which aspects are the most interesting depends partly on…

The audience

Avoid being too general (e.g. “the stakeholders”) when identifying your audience. Identify the decision maker in your audience.
Then also consider how the decision maker perceives you: Is this an established relationship or a first impression? Do they already trust you as an expert on the data or do you first need to establish your credibility? All of this influences the tone of your presentation and how much detail you include.

The action that follows your presentation

What do you want your audience to do? You might think you’re only there to report the facts and leave the decision on action to the higher-ups. “Storytelling with Data” instead tells you to include a recommendation for action whenever possible.

The key idea here it to make the presentation relevant to your audience. The worst than can happen afterwards is that the audience says “So what?” and nothing further happens. You need to make it clear, why your audience should care. Even if your recommendation is wrong, it will spark a conversation centered around taking action when discussing other next steps than the one you recommended. If it is not fitting at all for you to voice your opinion on next steps, you should encourage a conversation around action without a clear suggestion.

Some “action”-words that could be what your audience should do are: “accept”, “change”, “begin”, “encourage”, “establish”, “implement”, “plan”, “remember”, “promote”, “validate”.

An action does not always have to be as drastic as accepting a budget increase or changing a policy. It could simply be to remember the presented data and its conclusions while going into the next business quarter. But you should define for yourself what the intended outcome of your presentation is.

How will you communicate?

You might think “I’ll use a slide set, duh”. That is probably the most common option for live presentations. However, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of control you have over the presentation itself and the amount of detail needed.

Let me explain. In a live presentation, you can see if the audience is confused, you can get feedback or reactions which tell you to slow down or speed up. But more importantly, you can answer questions and clarify points at any time without having to have all the information on your main slides – mainly because you as the expert are present and available.

This changes if you are recording the presentation or are presenting the information in written form. You will need to include more details that address potential questions upfront.

For these reasons you should avoid creating a “slideument” that tries to be both – a live presentation slide set that is later shared to people who could not make it to the live event.

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