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Soft Skills: Data storytelling

What do you want your audience to remember after they hear your presentation – even if they forget everything else? Photo Courtesy of | © kasto

What do you want your audience to remember after they hear your presentation – even if they forget everything else?
Photo Courtesy of | © kasto

No more ‘criticism sandwiches’: A new framework for getting feedback.

Esther ChoyBy Esther Choy

The clock was ticking. Nitin had 24 hours before an important presentation. In it, he would summarize data from a recent project to persuade his boss to act on his recommendations. But without much time to make the presentation the best it could be, Nitin was getting frustrated with his colleagues Gwen and Alan, who had volunteered to give him feedback on a practice session. Their feedback felt overly nitpicking and personal.

“I don’t like the way you transition between slides,” Gwen said. “It’s weird for it to take so long. Speed it up.”

“You’re speaking at a good pace,” offered Alan, “but I really don’t like your choice of font on the deck.”

This is going nowhere, thought Nitin, racking his brain for a polite way to end the unprofitable session.

Why Feedback Goes Awry

Asking for feedback doesn’t always end well – even when your test audience fully intends their feedback to be helpful. Since feedback can turn personal and unproductive, it’s clear that we need a new feedback framework.

The usual model starts with what the critic liked or didn’t like, generally delivered in the form of a “criticism sandwich”:

  • Start positive
  • Deliver the bad news
  • End positive

The “like and dislike” framework is subjective. How do you know your real audience will have the exact same pet peeves your mock audience did? And delivering feedback in a “criticism sandwich” makes the recipient brace for the distasteful layer of bad news in the middle, and not enjoy the “bread” of good news on the outside.

There’s a better way, and a new framework for getting feedback on how well the stories you tell around data are really working to communicate that information.

Make a Wish List

In my forthcoming book “Let the Story Do the Work” [1], I emphasize the importance of doing essential prep work before you seek feedback. If you start with a presentation that is on target, you won’t have to do as much work afterward.

So, make yourself answer this question: What do you want your audience to remember after they hear your presentation – even if they forget everything else? Start with the end in mind! This has kept my clients (and me) from generating draft after draft that doesn’t get to the point.

Keep your “wish list” to three points. Keep those points to 10 words each (or fewer).

For instance, a presentation on applying data analytics to real estate [2] given to an audience of Realtors, could have as its wish list:

  1. Analytics can flag suspicious patterns and protect homeowner/Realtor (9 words)
  2. Data analysis makes realty transactions more personalized – not less (9 words).
  3. Data analysis gives Realtors more control over decision-making (9 words).

Often, you can weave these points into a three-act formula for structuring stories (more on that in “Let the Story Do the Work”).

Know Your Audience

When you want these three points to resonate, it’s essential to understand your audience. Indeed, understanding your audience is essential to any kind of communication. Here are five audiences you are likely to encounter during data presentations [3].

1. Intelligent outsiders: While these “outsiders” won’t have in-depth training in data analytics, they are, nonetheless, intelligent, and oftentimes are well-educated and demanding audience members who are familiar with your industry and do not appreciate material being dumbed down. For example, financial advisors sit through new product presentations by asset management firms. While they have gone through extensive training and passed rigorous licensing exams, they do not manage assets, are not portfolio managers and may not understand the complex valuation models asset-management firms use to curate investment products.

2. High-level cross-functional colleagues: These are peers from other departments who contribute different expertise but who are familiar with your topic. They seek more refined understanding and especially knowledge about how your topic could impact their areas.

3. Your boss: This is your direct manager, the person who not only has to understand but also stand by your work. This is the person who will forward your recommendations to higher-ups as if those recommendations had originated from her. In short, the boss may well be taking a chance on her career based on your work. Therefore, she would like to have “in-depth, actionable understanding of intricacies and interrelationships with access to detail” [4].

4. The head cheese(s): Your manager’s managers (or even higher). These important executives are very busy and must make numerous important decisions on a daily basis. Because of this, they prefer, and often require, conciseness, and they may need to be reminded why someone is presenting on a given topic and which important decision it relates to.

5. Fellow experts: Especially in academia, think tanks or research organizations, it is possible that those in the audience seats are fellow experts who know just as much about your topic as you do, if not more. In this case, explanation, especially in the form of storytelling, takes a back seat. Instead, this audience may prefer to explore and even critique your methodologies and results.

Separate Your Motivations from Your Audience’s

Before we can truly connect with any of these five audiences, we have to admit that what motivates us as presenters is not what motivates our audience. As presenters, we want to impress and prove our value. We obsess over whether the presentation shows how knowledgeable and qualified we are.

But whenever we’re members of an audience, our motivations are totally different. When was the last time you sat down in a lecture hall or conference room and thought, “Boy, I really hope this presenter doesn’t screw up. I hope they don’t stumble over any words. I hope they really prove that they’re qualified.” Instead, the thought process is more like: “What will I learn that will improve my life? I know this person is an expert – but will he bore me to tears?”

Having this self-awareness to acknowledge your own worries and then shift into the audience’s point of view is an essential part of prep.

How to Interact with Your Mock Audience

Once you’ve assembled your mock audience, tell them about your target audience. Which of the five categories do they fall into? What do they worry about at work?

Second, follow the CLEAR framework:

Clarify your intentions and goals to set parameters for the feedback. For example, if your intent is to explore whether a story idea is compelling, ask for it. Otherwise, others may automatically focus on your grammatical issues!

Listen and take notes. Understandably, getting feedback can make the most confident people self-conscious. And when we are self-conscious, we don’t pay attention to others and their messages as much as we should. So, to make sure that all feedback is captured, record it in writing.

Evaluate feedback in 24 hours. Stepping away from the feedback will give you a whole new perspective and appreciation.

Ask questions. Feedback giving and receiving is about having a dialog. So instead of taking feedback as-is, ask questions to clarify. Here are three important questions to ask:

What fact(s) can they recall? You may have your own sense of what your audience should pay attention to. But only from their feedback will you really see what is “sticky.”

How does the presentation make them feel? The ultimate goal is to drive change and prompt action. Without understanding the emotional impact your presentation has, it is hard to gauge how effective your presentation is.

What action, if any, would they be likely to take after listening to your presentation?

Resist the urge to defend. It is nearly impossible to perfectly align our intention with our action all the time. You may feel others have gotten it wrong and feel the need to defend yourself. Please resist this temptation. It will easily shut down the feedback and end the dialog. Instead, say thank you and ask if you could come back and ask more questions once you have a chance to evaluate the feedback after 24 hours.

With this new feedback framework behind you, you can be confident your next data storytelling presentation will truly connect with the people who matter most.

Esther Choy ( is the president and chief story facilitator of the business communication training and consulting firm Leadership Story Lab. Her book, “Let the Story Do the Work” (published by AMACOM), is available for pre-order on Amazon. This article contains an excerpt from the chapter entitled, “Telling Stories with Data.”

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