Great Data Storytelling Means Knowing Your Audience

Up to this point in our Data Storytelling series we’ve not only covered the importance of telling stories with data, but also how to structure stories using the Hero’s Journey. But like any great writer, you need to consider two critical aspects before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Specifically, you need to know your audience and your goal for telling them your story—otherwise, you risk wasting a lot of time and losing the interest of key stakeholders.

Ask Yourself: Why should they care?

Meetings are a time suck. If you’re planning to get long-term buy-in or even short-term praise, make the meeting, presentation, or email worth their time. To prepare a narrative with the appropriate facts and figures, you must understand your audience so you can influence the heck out of them. In addition to recognizing stakeholders’ needs, priorities, and challenges, it’s equally important to speak their language and share your story in their preferred format.

Here’s a list of helpful basics when it comes to appealing to your audience:

  • Listen to your audience. It’s important to understand what each group wants to hear and how they want to hear it. The more you listen to your audience, the better you can craft an interesting story that speaks their language while also answering their questions and concerns.
    • What are their main goals or priorities? Can you relate your findings, impact, or success to their goals or priorities?
    • Do you have similar challenges in reaching your objectives? Even distant ones such as limited access to data, manual reporting hiccups, or navigating bureaucracy may help you pique and keep their attention.
  • Make your story relatable. Once you’ve tied your findings directly to your audience, consider how you’ll share your story. Depending on who you want to reach, determine your delivery, context, and/or wording so your story directly relates to specific stakeholders. Remember, what works for one group may not work for another.
  • Keep it simple. When your story is easy to understand, you're more likely to get exactly what you want. So, in most cases, avoid complicated terminology and insider lingo. Otherwise, you risk being interrupted every five minutes for an explanation or, worse, alienating your audience altogether.
    • The easiest way to keep it simple is to make sure you’re prepared. Winging it wastes time and complicates your story as you try to find the right words.
    • If it’s simple to deliver, it’s easy to understand—meaning it’s easy for them to remember.

Now, what’s your storytelling goal?

If you don’t know the reason why you’re telling a story to this audience in the first place, then there’s no point in writing it. Patting yourself on the back doesn’t do anyone (but you) any good.

So, once you understand what your audience wants to hear, figure out what you want them to take away—or rather, give away—as a result of your story. Ideally, the results or outcomes discussed in your story should relate to the goal of the initial learning program—even if it’s an unexpected finding or lessons learned from an unsuccessful aspect of the program. Remember, there’s always an opportunity to dig into the data to adjust programs to ensure learning programs align with business goals—especially as organizational priorities are constantly evolving.

Before crafting your data story for a business audience, ask yourself:

  • What’s my goal(s) for telling this specific story? And what results or outcomes do I want to achieve from telling it?
  • What have I learned from the data, and what does that mean for the rest of my organization?
  • Do I have enough data to prove my point, and how can I craft that information to ensure my goal(s) is met?

For instance, your learning program had a goal to “reduce new engineer onboarding by two weeks,” while the resulting goal of your data story is “we reduced new engineer onboarding by two weeks, and we can apply the same strategy to other onboarding programs for similar results.” Not only are you proving your program’s success, but also using that success to influence and improve other stakeholders across the organization.

Real-World Example: Using Experiences to Drive Stakeholder Buy-In

After evaluating in-store sales representatives and customer-affiliated store employees, Brian Floyd and his team at The Behr Paint Company quickly realized there were critical gaps in Behr’s sales approach.

They addressed those gaps with a new training program and saw significant successes. And, as a result, they used that experience to create a sister program for a different customer segment.

The key takeaways here are:

  1. Behr discovered an opportunity for improving training programs;
  2. they launched a program that resulted in measurable success; and
  3. they gained buy-in to begin a new program by communicating their lessons learned to the stakeholders.

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