The best way to make a point isn’t with data

Numbers may not lie, but sometimes numbers by themselves mean little unless they're put into the context of a bigger picture, argues Mutiny Group strategist Regan Kerr.

When I was learning to write essays in school, my year 12 English teacher drilled a rule into me that I’ve never forgotten: “Don’t use a quote to make a point; use a quote to support a point”.

I’ve since learned that I’m still vulnerable to making the same kind of mistake when talking about data. “Don’t use data to make a point; use data to support a point”.

If you’re a data analyst or spend any amount of time analysing data as part of your role, you’re probably pretty good at reading numbers. Spending hours in spreadsheets, you learn how to identify and extract interesting features or outliers.

When it comes time to present findings back to your team or a client, it’s easy to fill a deck of slides up with graphs, charts and numbers that you’ve polished up, discarding the irrelevant data to present a nice, clean look at what you’ve discovered.

But the numbers aren’t the story. They’re evidence of the story.

We’ve written before about controlling financial narratives to get more budgets, and your data narrative is similar. Storytelling in business is a powerful tool, but only if you tell the story properly.

When you’re presenting data, your audience doesn’t have the context you do. You need to contextualise your data in the bigger picture. People are busy, and distracted, and have competing priorities. They need to be told what the data means.

There’s also a lot to be said for the old quote “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. People are very used to being quoted statistics, and many have figured out that data manipulation is sometimes much easier than true analysis. Politicians often like making points with statistics, but people don’t tend to trust politicians much. Leading a point with statistics opens you up to being disbelieved from the get-go.

It’s much more powerful to lead with an opinion.

Rather than saying “55% of our audience lives outside of capital cities,” instead frame the statistic as “We should rebalance our media budget allocation because our audience skews heavily regional. We can see this because 55% of our audience have address records outside of capital cities.”

Instead of stating that “40% of leads leave the page before entering payment information”, you might say “Our purchase funnel has too much friction. We can see this because 40% of carts are abandoned on the payment information step.”

This also frames the data immediately with potential actions, rather than leaving it to interpretation. Just quoting statistics leaves the potential corresponding action up to your audience, which probably has a different view on the business to you. Controlling data narratives means framing the next step.

Data in a vacuum is just data. It might be interesting, but it needs to be actionable if you want to do anything with it. By using data as evidence, rather than in isolation, you can better control your data narrative, and make your business more data-driven.

Regan Kerr is a strategist with Mutiny Group


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