OPINION6 January 2020

Time for a story?

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In his latest column for Impact, James Oates, UK analytics director at Nielsen, discusses the importance of finding the story in the data.

Storytelling stories book data_crop

I regularly meet my customers to discuss how data and analytics is supporting their business needs. Among the general challenges that always come up, there is a constant theme running through the meetings: a lack of time. A lack of time to influence their customers effectively and consistently.

Companies are under huge pressure to get to relevant data quickly – and, more importantly, to extract meaningful insights and recommendations that will deliver effective results, internally and externally. While part of the challenge is around easy access to the right data, often the bigger challenge for businesses is how to give the insights purpose in a way that will resonate with key stakeholders.

My concern is that the art of storytelling that should surround the data is in danger of being lost, as a result of the pressure to go fast. Using data points in any argument goes only so far to compel or support business decisions. It’s the context and positioning of the story that brings the data to life and gives it true meaning for stakeholders – and it is the story that often tips the scales in favour of a positive outcome in a business discussion.

Of late, the industry has seen an emphasis on giving speedier and simpler access to data. As a result, dashboards and analytic templates have grown among most organisations that use data with a basic level of proficiency. These dashboards and analytic improvements do help make data more accessible to a greater number of people, but they don’t necessarily come with ready-made stories. And while advanced analytic approaches such as machine learning help get to the data more quickly and visualisation will evolve, the need to tell a compelling story about the data remains.

So what’s the real tangible benefit of speed, improved integration of data sets and advanced analytics for the industry? I believe the value is going to be in creating time. Time that will allow us all to tell the stories that bring the value of the data to life. Time to storyboard, time to rule out different hypotheses and – ultimately – the time to consolidate the findings from the data into a useable and simple set of recommendations that can be delivered in the right context and provide the ‘so what’ that matters most to clients. This allows us to cut through the debate and get to a consensus on key decisions.

Advanced analytics and the supporting technology will provide the opportunity to tell the stories, but that means that, as an industry, we must have the right skills in place to bring the storytelling to life – not always a natural starting point for many data teams.

In my own business, talking through the way we tell a data-led story with the communications department pulls out how we have to invest in the right training and tools that help us see beyond the data methodology and the numbers themselves, to develop the story effectively. These skills may be outside the comfort zone of many data analysts. Therefore, within any organisation, finding great storytellers and getting them working with the data remains a vital part of a customer-facing team.

As an analytic community, we rightly talk about how investing in analytics delivers a return on investment from the recommendations we make. So, as we consider that return on investment, we have to ensure that we are not only talking about revenue and cost, but also the precious commodity of time. As we create time, we need to protect it so we have the space to think, to be more creative and to learn to tell the stories that drive our business and make an impact with our clients.

This column was first published in the October 2019 issue of Impact.