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Human Skills 010 - Data Storytelling
with Christopher Chin
Christopher Chin has followed a fascinating if meandering path, starting in music and audio engineering, getting deeply interested in data, moving into data visualization and analysis, and now teaching data professionals how to speak in public and handle presentations.
In our conversation, we spent a lot of time discussing communication - how to craft a compelling story around your data, how to determine exactly the right context so share, and practices you can follow to improve your ability to speak in public.
Those practical tactics are what are shared below. But for those with interest and time, check out the later parts of this interview as well as we shift gears and talk about cultural differences in communication, mindsets, and how to live as an introvert in an extrovert's world.
How do you think about data storytelling?
The thing that I hear a lot when people talk about data storytelling, which is has become a big buzzword in the industry, is a lot of people feel reluctant to lean into that because the word storytelling within that evokes images of movies and fictional things and something that's not really relevant to the technical space.
But I would argue that it's not actually the stories themselves that are applicable to our technical world, but it's the narrative structures within those stories that we can use within our communications and presentations.
So for example, any classic archetypal story will have the main character within a context at the beginning, the original world. This is the classic hero's journey archetype. They're in the original world, things are OK, then something changes the status quo. And suddenly they realize they need to go somewhere else to learn something new. And over the course of different trials and tribulations, a lot of tension and resolution, they eventually become a stronger character at the end that has learned through their journey and now can implement it and teach others about it.
So that device of context, then some kind of climax and the conclusion, that three-step arc, that is the centerpiece of any kind of presentation or communication.
If you're giving a business presentation about some data you analyzed, first talk about the context. What's the original world that we're in? How are things in the business right now or in the past? Then build up to your major insight that you want to convey. This is the problem that we need to resolve. And then at the conclusion, you'd say, what action we can take to resolve that problem.
If you incorporate that systematic sequence of tension and resolution, and how we can learn from our past experiences, that is the key to engaging someone in your communications.
How do you determine the right context to share in a presentation?
I think at this point is where it's important to actually construct your presentation out of order. What I have found working with several clients on their presentations is that it's important to not go beginning to end because often the hardest thing to come up with is a good introduction. What is my opening line going to be? How am I going to start this thing when I don't know what's coming after?
So what I found works really well is to first figure out what the main point of your presentation is. So first figure out the middle, the climax. That's the main point you want everybody to remember once they leave the room. After that, figure out the conclusion, which should be obvious based on your work. What can we do to resolve that problem? So now you have the last half. Then you can go back to the context and fill in only the necessary detail that the audience would need to know in order to understand what follows.
[... and how do you figure out what is necessary?]
Yeah, so that comes down to concise communication. There's this famous quote out there that goes something like, "the authoring of a book is the easy part. It's the editing that takes up the four fifths of the rest of the work."
So editing is where the real work begins, where you have to figure out what stays and what you can let go of. And the hardest thing for us as authors of our own work is to take things away because we've invested so much time and resources into creating it.
But that's the most important part of the process. So what I recommend for especially that beginning part, figuring out what context is relevant, is to think: Every fact, can it go or can it stay? And to think of it not from the standpoint of more information is more informative for the audience but to think of it as more information is actually less informative for the audience.
So every new fact that you add actually takes away from people understanding your insight. It adds more noise and hides the signal.
So I recommend that for every fact that you're thinking of adding, every piece of context you're thinking of adding to the story, think about whether it really belongs. If you take it out, can it still stand strong on its own? If you add it in, will it actually benefit anything? Do that for every piece of information you want to add.
How do you decide what to include or exclude in a presentation?
I think that the best way to approach that kind of questioning process is to think about even more so than what information to include, what does the audience need to hear.
Often what happens I see with clients who are developing their presentations is they think about what they need to say, but not what their audience needs to hear. So they're thinking about what information can I put on all these slides to inform my audience about something, but they're not really thinking about the other person on the other side, what information they want to know about.
The way to approach that questioning process well is to know your audience. Do the research to figure out who your audience is, what's their level of technical proficiency to start out with. That will inform what kind of context would be relevant for them to hear. And also think about what kind of information has your audience seen in the past.
So when you present your new finding to them, is that something they'll expect or will they be surprised and actually angry and frustrated with what you're presenting to them? That will inform what context you give to them. If you do your research well for your audience, you'll understand what they've seen before. You might not even need to say certain things because they already know it.
And the last thing is to really know what action they need to take once they leave the room. Using just enough context to help them understand what action that is and why it's applicable to them.
How do you create a presentation that is going to persuade your audience?
What I usually recommend to be maximally persuasive is to focus on the structure of your presentation. And this calls upon the storytelling that we were talking about before. What really works in storytelling is it engages people because it speaks to something very deep within our human spirit that we're seeking in our day-to-day lives.
Stories show patterns of transformational change. The Harry Potter series. Maybe not everybody is aware of it in this day and age, but I grew up with the Harry Potter series. In the second movie in Harry Potter, there's this scene at the very end where Harry, the main protagonist of the series, who's a boy wizard, he goes down into the subterranean caverns of the school.
And in this cavern, there's this monster, the basilisk, that he needs to confront. And this is an archetypal kind of setup. So the hero, the knight in shining armor needs to slay the dragon in the caverns of this place. And during the fight with the basilisk, he gets injured and the venom from the basilisk poisons him so he's going to die. But what happens is a phoenix comes in, another archetypal mythical element, it comes in and its tears heal his wound.
So he survives, he kills the basilisk and then he saves the day, he saves the people present in the Chamber of Secrets. And that example shows the pattern of transformational change that speaks to every person when they hear a story.
It's the story about someone who starts in one place, they struggle, they experience challenge, and then they grow from that experience and they become stronger and more resilient and more capable for the rest of their lives.
Any time that someone listens to a presentation, if you use that structure of transformational change, you can persuade someone to take on your insights and be motivated to take the actions that you're recommending to them.
So for example, in a business presentation, let's say that you start in one place, again, that structure of context and climax and conclusion, you start in one place, you explain things are bad now in the business, you might be frustrated by hearing these numbers that I'm presenting to you. But this is the action we can take to resolve that pain point in the end.
What happens is if you agonize that pain point, that frustration, you say, "this is really bad, we can't keep going on in this current state... and I can show you through that transformational change how we can change the business for the better," then you can persuade them: Okay, there's no other choice, we have to take this action, otherwise things will continue in this bad route that we've established from the beginning. So persuasion is really about creating enough of a structure that fixates on the pain and then shows its resolution.
What practices do you recommend to improve your communication?
I have one big recommendation for folks to improve their communication and that would be to record yourself. I find that that's the best way for people to know how they come off to other people, how they present their body language, but also their delivery of the lines. And you're your worst self-critic, so you'll see every flaw that's present and you'll know what you want to work on afterwards.
This is such an uncomfortable exercise. People hate doing this. But it's actually one of the most important things. There's no way to know how you appear to someone else than to record yourself and deliver those lines.
Actually, someone asked me at some point, they said, "how do I know if I am making a mistake when I'm speaking if I don't know what those mistakes are?"
So basically their feeling was, how do I know if I'm doing something wrong if I don't know what the best practices are in the first place? And so what I recommend to them was to record yourself.
When you record yourself and you watch it back, you're not present in the moment, so you can see it a lot more objectively. So you can see what are those places where I messed up. In the moment, it might have felt really good, but then when you rewatch it, you say, "oh no, the pacing was a little bad at that point. This is where I can improve in the future."
Recording yourself has so many benefits, and that's the main thing that I recommend to people to improve their communication.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Christopher’s Hidden Speaker blog for additional data communication, presentation, and storytelling resources:
Christopher is working on an online course about data communication, and is offering 15% off for folks who fill out a pre-course survey at https://thehiddenspeaker.com/pre-course-survey-newsletter/
Links to Christopher
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