How to Ease Complex Data into a Business Story

Creating a story around your data is key to helping your audience engage with the data. Imagine a group of physicians and medical staff from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who were tasked with traveling around the country to train other VA physicians and staff in new ways of delivering patient care.

This multi-day training was one continuous PowerPoint presentation. The slides were dense, and the amount of information was vast. No slide was allowed to be changed. Of course, the biggest challenge was how to transfer all this knowledge in ways that made it meaningful and memorable.

What did they do to overcome this issue? Each person took a slide and circled one piece of knowledge on it that listeners needed to walk away with. That became the key message. Then each person found a personal story that delivered that key message.

When the slide came on the screen, the person shared that personal story and delivered the key message. Following this, using the story and key message, the individual referenced the remainder of the complex information on that slide. It worked like a charm. Instead of getting glassy-eyed stares, it was obvious the audience was learning.

If you have complex data to communicate in a slide show, you can use this technique to tell a series of stories about the data. Or storyboard the data to see how it flows together, reveal what pieces might need to be added, and allow the story to emerge from this process. That will help you figure out what data to show and the form to use to display it.

It’s easy to fall into the so what? syndrome with highly complex data. Here’s how it happens: Because we dig into the data ourselves, we become entranced with the process of crunching numbers and making charts. We can’t wait to show the fruits of our labors. We excitedly present it to a group. But they look at us like we’re crazy. Inside, they’re saying, “So what? Who cares?”

If you can’t answer these questions, no amount of tinkering with data will work.

Break data into bite-size chunks

When it comes to data, small is beautiful. Big is not. Break large amounts of complex data into easily digestible pieces. Share your data in small bits and bytes so the audience can digest what you’re saying, comprehend it, and create meaning from it. The left brain needs time to process the information and “get it.”

Especially today. More than ever, people are exposed to increasingly chaotic situations. And that’s not going away, given our dependency on technology. How does this impact communications? It means you need to lower the complexity associated with them.

Display complex data so it tells a story

Several times we’ve mentioned moving through your data as though you’re taking others on a journey. An easy way to do this is to take a story structure and share your data using it. Here’s an example:

Let’s say you’re looking at a chart about the consumption of animal proteins from 1910 to 2008 and want to share it in a presentation. The chart shows the consumption of lamb, veal, turkey, fish and shellfish, chicken, eggs, pork, and beef.

The data for each are displayed across a timeline that includes World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The chart also shows the year the first and the 1000th McDonald’s restaurant opened. Talk about a lot of data!

How do you take someone on a story journey to understand this chart? First, figure out the key message. In this case, it’s Make a conscious choice. With this key message in mind, here’s how you might share this data as a story using the PARLA structure:

Since my husband’s heart problem a few years ago, we’ve been more concerned about how much beef we eat. (problem) I don’t recall eating a lot of beef growing up, so I wondered, “How has consuming proteins like chicken, fish, beef, and pork changed over time in the U.S.?”
One day while taking a break, I decided to poke around the Internet and do some research. (action) I was curious about a few things. Was pork gaining in popularity over time? Are people eating more or less chicken today? If our oceans are being overfished, does that mean we’re eating more fish? And has beef consumption really risen all that much? Inquiring minds want to know!
It didn’t take me long before came across this particular chart. As I stared at it, several things popped out right away. First, I was really amazed at how popular chicken had become. I’d assumed that people were eating pretty much the same amount of chicken over time. I guess that’s because we were always eating chicken at my grandparent’s farm.
And, despite all of the news about the oceans being overfished, instead of finding a big spike like I was expecting, I found only a tiny increase.
That made me curious about how much lamb and veal people were eating today. They’ve actually been on a slight decline. That didn’t surprise me. I’d never eaten lamb or veal until I was a young adult.
I was also startled to find pork had remain pretty stable, despite how popular bacon has become. It seemed to me that we were always eating baked ham, bacon, and ham balls when I was a kid.
But here’s the kicker: The link between the dramatic rise in beef intake and the popularity of McDonald’s was stunning. (results) Now I’m sure it’s not the only reason people love beef, but it’s a big influence.
In the end, here’s what I gained from this chart: Fast food has radically changed our diets. (learning) Personally, I choose to opt out of its advertising influence because I know I have to make a conscious choice over the foods I eat. (action) Now, what does this chart say to you? Do you need to make a conscious choice over what you eat?
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