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Think Like a Writer to Tell Your Analytics Story

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. New writers are taught to consider 6 key elements before composing a story: Characters, Conflict, Setting, Plot, Point of View, and Theme. The best stories share these elements to keep you turning pages until the end, but this doesn’t happen by accident—the authors have taken the time in advance to make sure that all these elements are in place. Similarly, if you want an audience to sit up and your message to soak in when you’re presenting the outcomes of your latest round of business analytics, you need to think and plan more like a novelist and less like a scientist.

First, your Characters: These are your data. Everything revolves around them…but only if the audience cares. Where did they come from, what are their strengths and flaws, and how will you evolve them during the story? Not all are protagonists; the virtues of high-quality, clean data (just like well-loved characters) only become truly evident by contrasting them with incomplete, cloudy, dubious data—which unfortunately are rarely in short supply for most analytics projects. By showing these distinctions—for example, by introducing inferior data and then describing why you eliminated them from the remaining analyses—you make those who do survive to the happy ending all the more meaningful and memorable.

Think Like a Writer to Tell It

Second, your Conflict: In fiction, this can be a struggle between the forces of good and evil; for you, it’s the need or question being tackled with your analysis. What were the business catalysts, and why is this more important today than yesterday or tomorrow? Absorbing conflicts are challenges that all can relate to and have faced themselves (or are facing now). If you can’t make your conflict obvious to the audience, your analytics are answering a question no one is asking.

Third, your Setting: Instead of 15th century Italy as the locale for a Renaissance-era mystery, this is your business context. Your analytics aren’t occurring in a vacuum—what preceding, surrounding, and upcoming events do the audience need to be made aware of (or reminded of)? Each audience member brings his or her own background; a well-constructed setting guarantees that all are viewing the issue through the same lens—and precisely as you are defining it—of time, place, and business environment. Their common context will also guide any follow-up analyses, making the story’s next draft (another likely reality since few analytics questions are fully answered in a single iteration) that much stronger.

Fourth, your Plot: Through what sequence of events are you guiding the audience? What are the logical connections along this path, with each analysis phase and data source leading naturally to the next, with a rationale and without gaps? People hate being lost in the middle and left meandering without direction—with a well-crafted plot for your data-driven story, including foreshadowing, waypoints, and smooth transitions, the step-by-step progression from beginning to end becomes perfectly clear.

Fifth, your Point of View: For a story, this may be first- or third-person; for you, it’s the stakeholder perspective (or in most cases, multiple perspectives) you are emphasizing. With business analytics, these can include operational, financial, technical, or user-focused perspectives. Plan in advance to ensure that everyone in your audience can clearly see the meaning of your story, but from their point of view. If possible, build in interactivity—for example, in a data model—to account for a skeptical stakeholder’s view. At a minimum, be clear about the Points of View you took with the analyses, as they shaped everything you did and why.

Finally and most importantly, your Theme: What is your overall message? What should the audience know afterward that they didn’t before about the data? For analytics, what are the key one or two insights that simply must occur—in many cases not just stated in words but also shown clearly through titles and annotations—or else your intended effect and any resulting implications will be ignored, lost, or squandered?

Story-tellers in all arenas share common obstacles, but the use of time-tested techniques honed over centuries of novels, plays, and epics can dramatically increase the impact and memorability of your finished work, particularly when paired with data visualization techniques to bring numbers to life and applied to dense business topics that can otherwise appear dry and lifeless.

When planning your next analytics presentation, force yourself to answer these questions beforehand—and once you’re done, ask a trusted colleague to channel their inner critic and tell you how your analytics story’s Characters, Conflict, Setting, Plot, Point of View, and Theme hold up against the last great book they read or play they attended. Your audience will thank you for it and your message will be much more likely to resonate with the audience, influence others toward action, and drive business outcomes.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Posted: 02 Dec, 2015,
Talk to an Expert: Think Like a Writer to Tell Your Analytics Story
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