Why does involvement in data and analytics remain low in the C-Suite of many organizations? It’s a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to, and something data leaders must grapple with as well.

Senior executives are focused on the future direction of their companies. Except for the retrospective looks at the previous quarter or 12 months that they are required to offer on analyst calls, they don’t find analytics on past performance as interesting as predictions and insight on what’s to come. In my experience, it’s this future focus that drives engagement and discussion. The questions they grapple with daily include:

  • What path should we take? 
  • If the market is shifting, what can we do about it? 
  • How do we mitigate this factor while accelerating this other one? 

Prescriptive analytics certainly helps to drive these conversations, but it’s not as simple as putting a recommendation or a prescriptive model on a slide.  

Getting beyond “That was interesting”

This is where storytelling comes in. It’s a simple reality that people don’t respond to algorithms, they respond to stories. In the past, if I ever left an executive meeting with the comment, “Thanks, that was interesting,” I knew I hadn’t done my job. Interesting doesn’t drive action.

During the depths of the pandemic I found some inspiration to change my approach from an unlikely source, the TV personality John Oliver. His approach to storytelling is the same in each episode of his show: 

  • What’s happening in the world
  • Why you should care
  • What you can do about it

These were all topics that resonated with me. Now I leverage this approach with the C-suite when I try to get out of the “that was interesting” world and make a case for action. The end game is not about our analysis as data leaders, our recommendations, or the data itself. It’s about creating a personal connection and robust discussion with executives or other audiences on why we should change. As data leaders we’re meant to drive relevance around engagement, not just recommendations.

It's easy to disregard even the best data if it’s a wall of numbers or a single chart. But it becomes a lot more difficult to discard an opinion in a group setting where you’re debating about the story data is telling you as a leadership team. No matter how good it is, data never speaks for itself. If you’re unable to have good business conversations when you present data, it may be because you haven’t drawn out the right story and created the conditions for debate, dialogue, and connection.  

Investing in the data story

I believe so strongly in the power of data storytelling that I'm putting my entire organization through storytelling with data training. Whether you have one data point, two data points, or a full blown analysis, you need to be able to communicate effectively. It’s fundamental to creating a successful, data-literate culture.

If you don’t have internal resources for this kind of training, look beyond your walls. There are companies and consultancies out there that have developed curricula that will meet your needs. What’s been most satisfying for us is that our team is becoming focused on simple elements of great data storytelling, such as: 

  • What type of chart should we use to make this point?
  • How do we reduce noise to get at an insight?
  • How do we draw attention to where we want it to be, so we can generate discussion? 

Answer questions like these in the context of what’s happening, why you should care, and what you can do about it, and you’re well on your way to a great data story that you can share with your C-suite.