Telling a Story with Data
By Kelly McGuire, Executive Director, Hospitality and Travel Global Practice, SAS Institute, Inc
As analytics become more accepted, more visible and more desired across hospitality organizations, analysts and IT departments are challenged to deliver data to a wider range of personas. In this information-hungry atmosphere, the key to gaining support and inspiring action across the organization is the ability to "tell a story" with the data. It's not just about presenting rows and rows of data, or charts of results, but rather, using that data to support the story you want to tell – in a highly visual and accessible format.
Revenue managers have always been challenged with interpreting their data to the “layperson” outside revenue management. By focusing first on the action, then the story, then on the supporting points, revenue managers, or any hotelier, will find their presentations becoming more compelling, and their requests granted more often! It is very tempting to present slide after slide of charts and graphs, but often a single visualization that drives home a key point and results in a desired action is much more powerful. You know you’ll be able to produce the backup information if it’s needed, but you’ll provide a memorable takeaway, and most importantly, make it really easy for your audience to repeat your story to their key constituents, adding to the power and reach of your message.
Focus On the Audience and the Action
It may sound obvious, but be sure before you put together any presentation that you know who the audience is and understand their expectations. Your material must be tuned to the audience from the content, to the language you use, to the takeaways you develop. Secondly, you need to think about the format that you are presenting in. Will this be in a room or via conference call? How big is the screen? Do you expect questions or discussion? There is nothing worse than watching a presentation with complicated and wordy slides on a teeny-tiny screen from the back of the room (frankly, in my opinion, there is no excuse for giving a presentation that has such complicated visuals, if they have to be that complex, it’s not a presentation, it’s a report – more on that later). Being prepared on these basics will make you look much more professional.
The most effective presentations are those that inspire an action from the audience. Whether it’s approving a request, giving the go-ahead to move forward, adopting a new business practice or simply gaining an understanding of a current status, every presentation should end with your audience clear on their next steps, and inspired to take the action you recommend. Revenue managers are frequently called upon to present analytically-driven material from performance updates to the results of special projects. The required/expected action for some presentations may be much clearer than others. A status update or hotel performance review, for example, may not seem like a presentation that’s supposed to inspire action – but it is. Do you want your audience to be able to update their stakeholders after they hear your presentation? Do you want them to start or stop selling rooms during a specific time period? Do you want them to simply be better informed about how the hotel is performing? The goals you set for the outcome of the presentation will dictate the script of the story you want to tell, and facilitate the structure of the material you are delivering.
Knowing your audience means that you can tune the content and the action you want to take, to something that will benefit the audience personally. Make sure the benefit to the audience is clear in your mind, and right up front in your presentation. “I’m Kelly, the revenue manager, I’m here today to help you understand the forecast for the next three months, so you can make sure you have hired and trained enough housekeepers”. Or, even better, “so you can take credit for our excellent performance in your next departmental meeting”.
Telling the Story
Once you have firmly set the action you’d like your audience to take, the next step is to define the key points of the presentation that support and inspire the action you desire. This is the framework for your story. You are intimately familiar with the nuances of your data and analytics, but what does it tell the outsider? What’s going to be important for your audience to understand to support the action you’d like them to take?
Everyone talks about the rules of three in communication, and for good reason. Three key points, following the “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them again, remind them what you told them” methodology are easy to communicate, and easy for your audience to remember. This structure will make your presentations very powerful.
So for my forecasting presentation I might say:
- Current forecasts indicate we’ll be up 10% over last year
- This is driven by increased bookings in the transient sector
- Weekends, in particular, will be very strong
Supporting Your Story
After you have defined the action and surfaced your key points, then think about the data that would support the points you are trying to make. This is the easiest place to turn off an audience, so you have to be careful about what you include and how you explain it. I cannot stress enough that you will look much smarter/more confident if you can explain a complex analytic result clearly to an outsider than if you use a lot of big words, jargon and mathematical proof points. This is another place where understanding your audience is crucial. You will need to know at what level of detail (and insider language) they expect. I still caution, thought, to err on the side of simplicity and clear language, even if you are confident that your audience is relatively advanced. People can always ask more detailed questions, but they will appreciate that you’ve made your presentation easier for them to listen to, easier for them to retain and communicate to others.
They say pictures are worth a thousand words and in this case it’s particularly true. Supporting data and analytics should be presented as graphically as possible, avoiding charts containing rows of data at all costs. A big hole in the middle of a graph is much more powerful than digging through a row of data to find negative percentage growth. Reports are more effective when sent via email, or discussed in an one on one meeting (although I would still argue that even in an email, a visual with description will do a better job of guiding the recipient to the information you want them to consume). It is tempting to clutter up a graph with lines and bar charts representing all of the key metrics you track. Only include information on the graph that is relevant to the point you are trying to make. It will make it much easier for you to explain what you want the audience to get out of the graph and for them to understand it. Consider circles, colors or highlighting to draw attention to the parts of the graph that are most important to your point.
Describe your graph in simple but descriptive language. Color coding definitely makes this easier, as do the relative size or position of your lines and bars. I cannot tell you how many times I have given presentations where my interpretation of the graph basically amounted to “Red bar - bad, blue bar - good. Blue bar is higher here, so good! Blue bar is lower here, so bad”. This was, of course, followed by an appropriate conclusion like “Transient business is up on weekends, but down during the week”. I always include a little bit more information on the graph than I speak about (including labeling key data points with numeric values, clear data series labels, indications of statistical significance if appropriate etc.). Not too much more, but just enough to allows those in the audience that are interested (and comfortable) to draw their own deeper conclusions. I know details like how the data was collected and analyzed, what the limitations of the analysis were, but don’t bring it up unless I’m asked. I find that the simpler I make my interpretation, the more the audience trusts me. It turns out that an audience knows that it’s only when you truly understand your material, and are confident in the interpretation, that you can boil it down to the most basic elements that tell the right story. More often than not, they care more about the conclusions you draw and the actions that they should take than the numbers that justify them.
Other Forms of Communication
All of the tips above are useful in any form of communication, from written reports, to emails, to the daily or weekly reports that you create for your peers across the organization. In fact, many organizations today are moving away from static emailed reports with rows and rows of data and metrics towards a more visual and interactive form of data presentation. Rather than forcing them to comb through piles of metrics and do the investigative work themselves, these programs draw the viewers’ attention to required actions through dashboards, alerts and workflows. Users can look at trends over time as opposed to one point in time. There are many tools available today that facilitate data access and exploration at this level, and I am seeing more and more hospitality companies investing in this area. My only caution is that the more powerful the visualization tool, the more tempted we are to cram more and more information into the interfaces, creating unhelpful clutter. If your organization moves in this direction, make an effort to keep things simple, surfacing only the key metrics that facilitate decision making, while allowing users to drill deeper if they need to.
A Word of Caution
Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There’s three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, and there have even been books written on the subject (How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff being my favorite). Avoid trying to bolster a weak argument with flashy visualizations or misleading statistics. Remember, your credibility is at stake, and even the most anti-numeric of your co-workers will eventually see through weak arguments. Instead, build your reputation as an insightful thinker, who can see the forest for the trees, and is able to help others to do the same.
Dr. McGuire leads SAS’s Services Industry Global Practice, a team of domain experts in hospitality, gaming, travel, transportation, communications, media, entertainment and the mid-market. She is an analytics evangelist, helping SAS’s hospitality and gaming clients realize the value from big data and advanced analytics initiatives, to build a culture of fact based decision making. Dr. McGuire can be contacted at 607-216-5800 or Kelly.McGuire@sas.com Extended Bio...
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