Do you need to convey critical data to convince a client? Learn how to tell an effective story! Here's how to be persuasive if you're a data scientist.
Recently, a Forbes article I read dovetailed with some corporate training I've been involved with lately. Both concern data science. I'm talking about the value that's created when data is not only analyzed, but tied to business outcomes and communicated well to a client.
All three actions are necessary if data is to be interpreted productively: conducting the research, discovering the insights, and communicating them effectively. Unfortunately, the last two parts of the equation are often short-changed. Analyzing data is one thing. But what does it all mean? Even more important: what should it mean to the client that hired you to do the crunching?
It's in that final piece—conveying recommendations—where being a good communicator comes in. Would it surprise you to learn that that's where data scientists feel most vulnerable?
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The Idea Isn't Data . . . It's Successful Outcomes
The Forbes piece is "Data Storytelling: The Essential Data Science Skill Everyone Needs." The word "everyone" in that title is interesting, since it suggests that the ability to use evidence in knowing how to give a persuasive speech is something we all need. And of course that's true.
The author, Brent Dykes, advocates adding narrative and visuals to data to make an engaging and compelling case. Raw information, that is, usually can't accomplish that on its own. As a speech coach, I couldn't agree more. The key point in his article is that uncovering and combining data is useless “unless insights are uncovered and translated into actions or business outcomes . . . last mile skills that help convert insights into actions.”
And that's the importance of speaking in a nutshell: As a data scientist, can you explain the evidence the data are uncovering? Can you get it all to make sense—and more important, are you able to strongly advocate what now needs to be done to use those data to improve business?
Are You Telling the Story of Your Numbers?
In other words, can you tell the story the data are revealing? In terms of an analyst delivering results or knowing how to improve your team presentations, can you successfully convey your recommendations based on what the data are showing you?
This is the moment in a project where data scientists often feel at sea, and that's when they bring someone like me in to help them. In a sense, they've been content until now, living among the data where they're comfortable. But persuasion is a messy arena. And there's another skill involved: being able to put it all together in a coherent narrative, with all the parts coalescing.
The fact that there are strangers sitting across from you, smart people who aren't experts on this data, looking at you expectantly? Well, that isn't going to exactly soothe the soul of our on-the-spot data scientist, is it?
Live In Your Client's World—and Engage Them!
But here's some good news—and when I train individuals or teams of data scientists, it always plays out. Interpersonal skills matter in these situations as much as presentation abilities. In fact, it's the belief that one has to suddenly morph from a data expert into a master of the presentation platform that is creating much of the anxiety.
That level of performance expertise, of course, is not what your client team is looking for. They want you to explain your findings in human terms, along with your best recommendations for using the data. Your client and you are both looking for the human connection!
That's why I advocate what I call "living in your client's world." Simply take the step from your world into theirs, by asking yourself how you can present your information so they'll get it. That means weaving the data into a story and using visuals (just as the Forbes writer recommends). Also, use examples, scenarios, and situations that make sense to them and their business. Speak in metaphors and make comparisons that will resonate with them given what you know about them as a company and the sector they operate in.
They will warm up quickly to the story you're telling. (Don't be surprised when you start seeing heads nodding, for instance.) What won't surprise you is how easy it is to be persuasive when you're using good data to make your case.
 Brent Dykes, “Data Storytelling: The Essential Data Science Skill Everyone Needs,” Forbes, March 31, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentdykes/2016/03/31/data-storytelling-the-essential-data-science-skill-everyone-needs/#3e2652df52ad
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