Tthe Most Important Data Mining Skill

By Meta S. Brown

A data miner’s discoveries have value only if a decision maker is willing to act on them. As a data miner, your impact will be only as great as your ability to persuade someone — a client, an executive, a government bureaucrat — of the truth and relevance of the information you have to share.

This means you’ve got to learn to tell a good story — not just any story, but one that honestly conveys the facts and their implications in a way that is compelling for your decision maker. Richard Hren, marketing strategist and leader of consulting firm Hren and Associates, put it this way: “Storytelling with data is critical. But the emphasis is on data, not story.”

Any good story has some emotional truth. You can see yourself in the story; you laugh and cry along with the characters in the story. It feels true. A data story must also feel true (however, it’s not good if your boss laughs or cries). Unlike other stories, though, your data stories must be factual.

Classes in data mining (or any technical topic) won’t have storytelling on the syllabus. So how can you develop this skill? You’ll have to make your own mix of study and practice to develop yourself as a data storyteller.

Here are some exercises to get you started:

  • Review your latest project and ask yourself how it could be explained as a story. Look for these elements:

    • Truth (the facts revealed by the data, and their implications)

    • Protagonist (who will be impacted by the facts you have to share?)

    • Challenge (what must the protagonist overcome to solve a problem)

    • Happy ending (what result will come of taking the action you recommend?)

  • Practice telling your story to someone who isn’t familiar with your work, or with data mining. Choose a low-risk setting, like informal conversations with friends or family members.

  • Write your story, using real sentences and paragraphs. If you can’t make sense of it on paper, you’re not ready to present.

If you strive to become an excellent data storyteller, invest time in improving your writing and presentation skills. In theory, live classes are a good idea, but it can be hard to find classes that focus on nonfiction writing and informative presentations. If you can’t find a good match, just head to your local public library. There you’ll find plenty of good books on each of those topics. Read them, and devote plenty of time to practicing what you learn.