Telling a story with your data

So one of my colleagues was in a bit of a flap recently.  He had to give a presentation regarding the improvements he had made in his project.  Basically all he had was the graph below – note the December data is projected!  He told me he wanted inspiration.  I told him he needed a story.

graph 1

I started by asking him what the data meant.  What had happened in the last year; what went well; what went badly? What would the people listening to the presentation find interesting?  Being a numbers guy, he told me that in 2012 the average was almost 65%, whereas in 2013 the average was almost 73%, an increase of 12%.  So, what did you do to get the increase I asked?  Next followed a very long explanation, which I won’t go through here.  Suffice it to say that once you asked the guy the right questions, he got really passionate in his explanation.  In fact he had his story.  Again, I asked more questions, to make sure I had all of the details.  In April 2013 and September 2013 there was a slight spike in the data. What happened in those months, that was different to the others?

First we tidied up the graph.  The audience wasn’t interested in the month by month data.  I think you’ll agree the picture is definitely easier to read, when you look at the data by quarter, instead of by month.  Of course I couldn’t help myself, I also made the graph look good, by adding data labels, and removing the Y axis after altering the scale.

Graph 3

He had improved the performance of the project by 12%.  He wanted his committee to continue the investment in his project.  So I asked is 12% enough to justify how much they have invested?  What would the improvement in 2014 look like, if the committee invested again? 

Since my colleague was most comfortable with the numbers, I left him to do some projections.  Then we worked on the story.  I’m going to repeat some advice I quoted in a previous blog post

  1. Make a point
  2. Tell a story illustrating that point
  3. Give your reasons
  4. Reiterate your point

It is usually at point 2 where the presentation falls down.  Again I’m quoting Robert McKee and Bronwyn Fryer here.

You emphatically do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.

So what did we do?  We gave the numbers a face, and told the story of how the improvement had improved the life of one of the operators.  We showed a video of him explaining how his life had changed during the last year.  He’d become employee of the month at his plant three months in a row.  His shift had become the best performing shift.  He was happier at work and he was looking forward to his Christmas bonus.  To add the final touch, he endorsed the project and commented on how he was going to share what he had learned with others.  Since the project was in a project phase we were able to compare it to a plant where the project hadn’t been implemented.  Morale wasn’t particularly high. Performance was stable, but not great.  Word had filtered through to the other plants about the project, and many were busy asking when it would be implemented at their sites.  They wanted to improve, but didn’t know how.  They hoped that by implementing the project, they would find that way.

Now that is a compelling story and one which will definitely get the project green lit for another year!  What do you think?

Alesandra Blakeston

3 thoughts on “Telling a story with your data

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