A common thread running through all of Executive Platforms’ events is the challenge of sharing and acting upon complicated information, especially when subject matter experts need to reach an audience outside their discipline or profession.
Here are a few variations of what this shared talking point looks like as they have appeared on our agendas over the years:
- From Analysis to Action: Making Metrics Mean Something to Our Frontline Workforce
- Communicating and Collaborating Up and Down the Value Chain in Real-Time
- Improving Compliance Data Collection, Documentation, and Reporting
- The Power of Storytelling in Investor Relations
- Qualifying the Quantifiable and Quantifying the Qualifiable to Demonstrate ROI
- Bringing Hard Data to the Soft Skills of Human Resources
- Discussing Data Science with Non-Data Scientists
- Building the Business Case for Change
Each of these sentences speaks to a business challenge we could talk about at length:
- The manufacturing leader trying to transform the discoveries made in the office into real change on factory floors
- The supply chain planner attempting to get everyone to pool the same information all at once for better visibility and shared decision-making
- The head of QA/QC in a pharmaceutical company who needs to go beyond today’s regulatory requirements to create something persuasive that will also stand up to the future needs of an industry in the midst of dramatic transformation
- The CFO with the responsibility of translating cold numbers into something people get excited about
- The FSQ expert who needs to show the value a robust Food Safety culture brings to a company
- The HR professional who can approach tried, tested, and true best practices empowered by new tools and technologies
- The CTOs and CIOs bringing their expertise and insights to the organizations they serve
- The sustainability executive connecting their ESG initiatives to ongoing company projects and objectives
Now that we are two fairly long bulleted lists into this week’s column, let’s be honest with each other. You saw the title and assumed I’d be offering some insights into effective communication, and now you’re finding yourself going back and forth —or not— trying to match up each bullet point on the first list with the context on the second list, and if you were not already frustrated before, surely a little flicker of outrage is stirring now as you realize this is a pretty sloppy way to share information.
Well, you’re right, and I apologize for playing a small prank on you by way of demonstration. The content I was sharing is all there, but the format is not the best way to convey it. I made it more effort for you than it needed to be. What makes perfect sense to the author requires some deductive work from the reader, and there are going to be a lot of people who just tune out… Does any of that sound familiar?
Whether it’s the manufacturing leaders’ staff briefings, or the supply chain planners’ data sharing strategies, or the heads of QA/QC optimizing how to gather and share data, or the CFOs preparing public reports, or the FSQ experts putting a dollar value to the important intangibles of their work, or the HR professionals bringing numbers into how they serve their workforce, or CTOs and CIOs communicating their work to others, or the sustainability executives illustrating how doing good is also good for business, all of them can lose their audience before they even get started because they did not think of their audience or apply some simple rules to what and how they want to communicate.
I want to share one more example just to highlight how easy it is to fall into this particular trap. I have had the pleasure of knowing two accomplished businessmen who decided as a retirement project to write novels about businessmen. “Write what you know, right?”
Both authors included spreadsheets in their first drafts, and when their friends and family and other beta readers howled their outrage that a work of fiction should never require rows and columns of facts and figures, these two many-times published writers of non-fiction —independently and unaware of one another— both gave the same protest, “But the real story is in the numbers!”
They were eventually persuaded that, no, when telling a story to readers of fiction, the story is the story, and any numbers important to the plot need to be communicated in a way that laypeople can easily understand. Reluctantly, both edited their drafts to make their characters’ choices make sense for people who wouldn’t know an Excel PivotTable from a Roulette Table. Both books went on to be successfully published.
So What are We Really Talking About?
There are a lot of good ideas about effective communication. Thousands of books and articles have been written about it, and I encourage anyone seriously interested in the topic to do further reading. For the purposes of this week’s column, I am going to use the following four guidelines when we talk about giving your data a storyteller’s voice:
- A story has a beginning, middle, and a conclusion.
- A story takes its audience on a journey where things are one way at the start and another way by the end, and almost certainly there has been conflict or drama of some kind in that change.
- Effective storytellers think about their audience and how they want them to feel at the end of the story, and then they build their message in a way to achieve that result.
- One mark of a good story is that the audience should be able to clearly answer the question, “What was the story about?” after their first experience with it.
Of course, we could make this a much longer list, but for the purposes of talking about taking business information and making it something a broad category of people will want to engage with and understand, there is a lot of good work we can do just by exploring these four points further.
A Story has a Beginning, Middle, and a Conclusion.
Now you may think that is a pretty obvious thing to say, but think back to the last team meeting you sat through where new information was given to you. Do you remember that information in detail now? Were you following along with what you were told, or did you need to review some documentation after the fact?
Whether it’s a meeting or a briefing document or a grant proposal or just a summary of data, an effective communicator needs to break down what they are saying into digestible chunks arranged in a logical way that is not necessarily chronological order. We will get to that. It might be helpful to talk about what we need those digestible chunks to do.
A beginning sets the scene and familiarizes the audience with the who, what, where, when, why, and how of what is about to be discussed. Now many people choose to start their story from before anything happens and move forward from there. In many cases that is the best way to go, especially when talking about business matters, but let’s explore some other ideas as well. Many stories begin in the middle of things —the literary term ‘in media res’ literally means ‘into the middle of things’— which can be an exciting way to grab people’s attention with the exciting bit before working backwards and forwards from that point to inform people what is happening now that they really want to know.
An example of this? If we were writing about lessons learned from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster or the Chernobyl meltdown, should we start at the beginning, or should we start with a bang —if you will excuse me for using that word— confident people will be giving their full attention to the before and after having had the incident itself put front and center at the very top of the story?
Another approach to choosing where to begin is guided by the fifth of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of creative writing: Start as close to the end as possible. While there is a powerful temptation to start a story from the very beginning, imagine how much more powerful a story will be if its beginning is placed with a complete understanding of its conclusion and wastes no time getting there.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to our Space Shuttle Challenger disaster or the Chernobyl meltdown again. We do not need to start with the context of the American space program after the Apollo missions or the Soviet Union’s domestic energy policies in the 1970s and 1980s. If we are talking about lessons learned, we can start with temperature-sensitive rubber O-rings and graphite tips on control rods, because starting there will focus the audience on what is to come without them getting lost in the weeds of sending the first school teacher into space or the site selection process that chose northern Ukraine.
A middle will contain the meat of the story, but what separates it from the beginning and the end is that it trusts the audience knows what is going on but has no mission to stop. The middle’s most important duty to the story is to move things forward without losing the audience’s attention. When editing a story, the greatest sin a middle can have is being unfocused and boring. Move from the beginning to the conclusion with confidence. Do not worry about fast or slow. A good story will find a natural pacing as it unfolds.
The conclusion, as you probably guessed, needs to end things. It also needs to have clear connective tissue with the beginning and needs to address anything mentioned in the middle that otherwise might leave the audience with unanswered questions. This is a powerful editing tool at the end of a first draft, as this offers the writer a sense-check of what really matters and what can be eliminated. Above all, a conclusion needs to leave its audience with a feeling of satisfaction and the ability to say what they took away from the experience to someone else with confidence.
Remember when we were saying this was a pretty obvious thing to say? Sometimes the simple things have hidden depths. Let’s move on to the next point.
A Story Takes its Audience on a Journey Where Things are One Way at the Start and Another Way by the End, and Almost Certainly There has been Conflict or Drama of Some Kind in that Change.
Now this one I think is where a lot of business-minded people struggle, because the information they need to convey was not made up in the service of the story. The story is being made up in the service of the information. How should we make pharmaceutical data or financial reports or supply chain inventory numbers or HR performance analytics fit into a story arc?
If you want to give data a storyteller’s voice, you need to find a way.
Let’s remember what we said about beginnings, middles, and ends. Whatever information we need to convey to an audience, something changed between the beginning and end, surely? Is the middle not talking about what changed? If the answer to those questions is no, you need to reframe what you want to talk about. If nothing changed, isn’t the story that you expected change and did not get it, or you have worked hard to get to a point of stability, and so the story is how you got there and then maintained that? It’s tough to troubleshoot a hypothetical storytelling roadblock, but I can assure you if your story does not take your audience on a journey that ends at a different place than it began while experiencing bumps along the road, that is a red flag that needs to be addressed before you can go any further.
Effective Storytellers Think about Their Audience and How They Want Them to Feel at the End of the Story, and Then They Build Their Message in a Way to Achieve that Result.
If you are this far into this column, I don’t need to tell you the difference between a spreadsheet and a story. Spreadsheets are incredibly powerful organizational tools for people who know what they are looking at, and this whole article has been saying, “Sure, but how do you take what that spreadsheet is telling you and convey it to the people who don’t have your abilities, your context, your expertise?”
Think about who you need to connect with and what you want them to take away from that connection. Maybe a PowerPoint presentation full of charts and graphs and —yes— spreadsheets really is the best way to go. There are lots of people who understand charts and graphs and —yes— spreadsheets, and if what you need to share and who you need to share it with both work in that medium, terrific.
Even if that’s the case, let’s focus on the ‘how you want them to feel at the end’ part of all this. Does a presentation with charts and graphs and maybe even spreadsheets change an audience’s mood? Storytelling should in whatever way you choose to tell your story.
How are you going to move people? The HR executive and the Food Safety expert are trying to say their numbers prove this often-intangible thing they do is actually quantifiable and impactful. Fantastic! How do you make that something people care about, because the story they are trying to share is in service of a mission they want to do now that they have those numbers. They need people outside their discipline to get it, because the people outside their discipline are who they need to persuade so they can move on to bigger, better things. Who are those people and what do they care about? How can our professionals reach outside their own working lives and expertise to let others know what is going on with them and why it matters?
There is an old marketing truism, “The medium is the message.” It covers a lot of ground in just a few words, but the point is how you choose to convey the story is how the story will be received and understood and processed and enjoyed and acted upon. There is no one right answer, but whatever the right answer is for your story, it begins with thinking about your audience and what you want them to feel after hearing from you, and then working to get there.
One Mark of a Good Story is that the Audience Should be Able to Clearly Answer the Question, “What was the Story About?” After Their First Experience with It.
What’s your favorite book or movie about? What’s the ghost story you remember from back when you were a kid? What’s your go-to anecdote you tell while making small talk with new people? What’s the punchline of the first joke that comes to your mind?
You have answers to those questions because those stories left a lasting impression on you.
What was the biggest takeaway of last month’s all-hands meeting?
It doesn’t come to you as fast or as easily, does it? Now it may not fair to contrast work and play that way, but it still makes for an interesting illustration of the whole point of what we have been talking about. When information is just said aloud into a room full of people, how much of it really sticks?
Now imagine if the all-hands meeting was framed as a story. What if it was a story with a beginning, and a middle, and an end? What if the people in that room were all characters in that story who came along on the journey and underwent change as they moved from where they started to where they ended up? What if the point of the all-hands meeting was to identify what was going well, what was going poorly, and where we all go from here, and that was told in a way where even people familiar with what happened had not heard it told quite this way before. At the end of that all-hands meeting, aren’t a lot more people going to know what was said and what the next steps are going to be than an all-hands meeting where they walked through an agenda of which department hit which metrics and where everyone is on their quarterly targets?
Giving your data a storyteller’s voice is not just an exercise in making it entertaining and impactful to people who could not and would not draw their own conclusions from the raw data itself. It’s also about making the point of the data sticky. You want people to remember it. You want people to be able to repeat it. You want people to understand why things are going to happen based on what they learned.
Storytelling can make that happen. It might take a little more work and a little more thought, but think of all the good you want your data to do. Putting it in its best packaging to draw and hold the attention of its intended audience is the last, best thing you can do to make it impactful.
What do you want to tell us? How do you want to share it with us? What do you want us to remember and act upon?
Go on, then. Tell us a story.
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.