How to Speak Data to the Data-Challenged

Tips on communicating to everyday people without confusing them.

Introduction

You’re all hopped up because you discovered a fascinating insight into your business—or at least you think so. Maybe it’s a previously unknown reason for employees leaving the company. Perhaps you unearthed a groundbreaking discovery on how to convert visitors to customers. You’re downright giddy, and you can’t want to tell everyone about it. You want to see the results of your epiphany as soon as possible. Riches and a promotion are sure to come your way.

Not so fast.

In their understandable excitement, far too many people ignore what is arguably the cardinal rule of business communication: Remember your audience. As a result, their findings and ideas don’t have anywhere near desired impact, a huge point in Message Not Received.

To maximize the chances that others (fully) receive our messages, consider the following advice.

Recognize that Some People Actively Hate Data

Yes, even in this era of Big Data, plenty of execs are certifiable dataphobes. Some people know what they know, data be damned. (See Moneyball.) They don’t much like others challenging their beliefs with quantitative evidence. Depending on their clout, you may have to tread lightly and follow a few of the laws of power.

The very thought of varying your approach may rankle you. After all, shouldn’t “facts” and numbers speak for themselves? To quote W. Edwards Deming, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

That might be true at Google, but how many companies, departments, and groups regularly operate that way?

At the risk of getting all existential, though, what’s a fact anyway?

Mark Twain was spot-on when he said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Remember that, especially if your audience is agnostic or hostile to data. Beyond that, foolish is the soul who thinks that the business world is a meritocracy, never mind that the Constitution exists in the workplace. We usually pitch our ideas to those higher on the corporate totem pole than we are. Good things are unlikely to happen when you harp on the things that make them uncomfortable.

Use the Simplest Language Possible

“Think about the actionable synergies that will result from this cross-platform value-add!”

Foolish is the soul who thinks that the business world is a meritocracy.

Huh? 

Try again in English, please. Depending on an organization’s culture, it’s unlikely that important-sounding but ultimately hollow phrases will effectively sell an idea. Still, that’s only part of the problem. Even if, by some miracle, others understand what you mean, talk like this never results in clarity. To wit, others won’t know how to do the very things that you’re advocating. You know…the stuff that will actually help the organization realize all of those benefits.

Think Pyramid

Early in my consulting career, I sometimes didn’t give my clients the right types of synopses. Generally speaking, the more senior the person, the less she cares about details regarding how something is implemented. Start with the recommendation, not the often convoluted path to get there. Be prepared to go deeper if need be. That is, bring the data, but don’t inundate people with it from the get go. Tell a story.

Simon Says

A little strategy can go a long way, especially when any of the following is true:

  • You’re still taking the temperature of an organization or group of bigwigs.
  • You’re dealing with new partners who may not (yet) understand the intricacies of your business.
  • You’re replacing legacy systems with more contemporary, cloud-based ones.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a data-intensive message will necessarily be an effective one.

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