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Telling stories with numbers

Published on 01 June 2022

Telling stories with numbers

Many of us gained our roles due to technical skills and knowledge. As analysts, planners, or subject matter experts, we learn to build amazing models and reports. We can produce lots of data with graphs and colours. But how many of us have the soft skills we need? We can spend all our time getting information to other areas of the business, but is it useful to them? What is done differently as a result?

Make life easier for everyone

Engagement works on so many levels and can make everyone’s job easier. Reports, emails, or presentations don’t always tell people exactly what they need to know. Is there too much information or too little? Are they clear? Easy to interpret? Take another example. Do stake-holders understand the decisions we make and why? If a team manager needs to complete a coaching session by the end of the month, do they understand why we might not advise that it happens now, but recommend later today? Or do they think that planners just say no? Maybe they then go ahead and let us know afterwards. So often we see lack of engagement driving the wrong behaviour. This makes life harder for everyone.

Learning and accreditation

Members are always saying that engagement with stakeholders is vital to success as specialists. We see that especially in our training programmes. So, what can we all do to increase this engagement? Here are four common, simple ideas that we see being put into practice by even the most junior analysts. We look for this kind of initiative as evidence of putting learning into practice for our professional accreditation.

  • Day in the life. Invite colleagues to spend time with your team so they can see what you do and why you make the recommendations you do.
  • Regular forums. Surgeries give people a chance to bring issues to us. We can make changes or explain our thinking. It’s important that people feel we are listening and understand their issues.
  • Work across siloes. Working with IT, HR, or Marketing means we can learn from each other. We can plan changes, campaigns, or updates – to focus on what matters most.
  • Test and learn. Use pilot groups as you try out new ideas and approaches. This is a powerful way to engage people and prove the value of the changes you plan to implement.

Popular modules in our Learning Academy

Students often pick out the modules in our Engagement Box Set, or those on Telling a Story with Numbers. In our Assisted Learning Programmes (ALPs) for instance, people are looking to learn more technical aspects of their role. Yet, in their final presentations at the end of six months, they highlight ways in which it has helped them understand their stakeholders better. They talk about how to frame conversations to gain buy-in and to help plan communications when major changes are being brought in. They show how they now visualise information better and build emotional connection when communicating. We see this repeatedly among our award winners and finalists. We can no longer be seen as the analysts in the corner, whose role no-one really understands and who say no to everything. If we gain understanding of each other we gain huge benefits. It makes life easier for everyone.

Managing stakeholders and planning communication

Two popular learning modules give analysts tools to understand stakeholders and how to communicate with them successfully. Students learn how to map their stakeholder network and see how different people benefit from different approaches and language. They develop skills that make their outputs flexible for multiple audiences. They are able to explain to others why certain tasks really matter and the role they play in implementing strategic objectives, whether as planners or analysts. We learn about the importance of effective data checkpoints, change governance and handovers. We start to play a part in driving continuous improvement and become a nerve centre for the business.

Principles of persuasion and influence

Three popular modules give members a strong foundation for influence, starting with “Understanding people (including how to say no)”. Using approaches from growth mindset thinkers, we ask people to explore what happens in our heads when we hear or say “no” and learn to handle objections. We look at Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, modelled from understanding success in sales, but now proven to be of huge value in all kinds of roles. We chart some key persuasion techniques to help people build their ‘influencing toolkit’. Students learn the difference between Tell, Ask and Influence, understand different ways in which people make decisions and see how the language of engagement helps influencing.

Emotional engagement: the power of stories

Often facts and data are not getting our message across on their own. Other popular modules help us use emotional engagement techniques to bring insight to life. Students learn how to apply understanding about our audience to make communications, presentations and reports more meaningful. We see how stories help overcome doubts or even fears. We try out methods used by great speakers through history and explore how they can bring our audience on a journey. The latest modules from our 2021 National Conference have made available new material on how to create powerful presentations. All this is embedded into our Assisted Learning Pathways, where students present about their learning journey at the end of each programme.

The pyramid principle for effective communication

One learning module especially stands out. The pyramid principle is a simple technique to structure communications and reports. If you can answer the ‘so what?’ question, you can land your core message. Like us, our stakeholders have limited time. We rarely read every email or report we receive, certainly not end-toend. Neither do they. We may have just a few seconds to land our message and get our audience to act or read on. So let’s work out what is the headline and what is the supporting detail. Far too often we see this forgotten, so our presentations or emails become long and hard to read. Like the strategy pyramid, a simple idea like this can have a profound impact in bringing us back to the basics of getting people engaged.

Data visualisation and layouts

Another set of modules explore effective ways of presenting data. What makes this meaningful, interesting, and engaging? Students analyse why some existing reports don’t excite or engage stakeholders. They learn the basics of data visualisation, a fastgrowing topic in this digital world, with an evergrowing range of systems and functionality for presenting data effectively. We apply key questions and focus on what we want people to do as a result of looking at the data story. Crucially, we see students starting to use the tools and resource they need to keep driving improvement. This isn’t a one-off task. Whether we are producing dashboards, reports or presentations, layout and format is key to landing your message.

How do we track our success in this area?

A powerful library of best practice techniques has been pulled together in these modules, from many different sources. It is all the more impressive because of the way that our members, award winners and Learning Academy students are putting this into practice to engage people around them. As you go forwards into 2022, how might you track your success in this area? In the wider customer operation, we use metrics like Net Promoter and Customer Effort scores. In our own support teams, we may not always need the overhead of such measurement, but surely we DO need this to be our focus as analysts, planners, and subject matter experts. We can make it easier for people to engage with the story we are telling, by drawing their focus to what really matters and avoiding unnecessary distractions. You need to understand what matters to each part of your stakeholder audience, and what they need to be doing with the information you are offering

Author: Alison Conaghan

This article was first published in the 2022 Best Practice Guide - You Moment of Truth: Confident to Succeed

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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