Are you telling a story with data? You should be

Are you telling a story with data? You should be

Success as an accountant often lies in being able to "speak" finance to different areas and levels of the business. In today's data-driven business world, this essentially means being able to communicate data.

What's the best way to communicate data to any audience? Turn it into a story.

In this article, I look at best practice tips for turning data into an engaging story that will encourage understanding and inspire action.

As a data and performance management consultant, I see as one of the biggest problems companies simply dumping information on people in its raw form through complex dashboards, lengthy performance reports, and overly complex graphs that no one understands. When I help organisations improve their approaches to performance management and data reporting, we often focus on improving data storytelling.

It reminds me of a version of a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Turning data into a succinct, actionable story takes time — certainly more time than dumping masses of data on people and hoping they'll pick through it to find the insights they need.

People are busier than ever. Faced with a wall of data, with no obvious insights to pull out, how likely is it they'll sift through the minutiae in the hope of unearthing interesting nuggets? And even if they do sift through them, how do you know they'll arrive at the right conclusions? When you just give people numbers and graphs, you could get lots of interpretations.

That's why, instead of writing long letters, we need to write short, informative notes. We need to package data into easily digestible stories. By telling stories, not only do you make sure the core message is clear, but you also give people in the organisation the ingredients to understand and retell that story.

The first place to start is your audience. To whom are you communicating this information? What do they already know about the issues being discussed? What else do they want and need to know? And what will they do with the information?

With your audience firmly in mind, you can then begin to think about communicating your information effectively. Remember, what you want to do here is communicate insights, not details. You need to help people in the business interpret key data so that they can make smarter, more informed decisions, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to extract and understand the insights. The easier it is to do that, the easier it is for them to take action.

When it comes to communicating insights effectively, it's hard to beat the front page of a newspaper. In other words, like a newspaper, you'll need:

If you must include detailed data, consider putting it in an appendix or supplying a web link to further information.

As well as learning from the way journalists package their front-page stories, there are plenty of other inspiring storytellers to learn from. For example:

For more inspiration on turning your data into a compelling story, you might like to check out:

Bernard Marr is a thought leader, speaker, author, and business, tech, and data adviser. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.

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