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Humanizing Training Data Analytics for Executives

Posted by Ara Burke on 9/21/2016
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The Challenge

            The mind numbing tsunami of data presented to executives daily threatens to drown any significant information you present before assimilation. In data-led business cultures, remember to generate interpretable information that enables human exploration.

Before presenting any data to your executive team, it is important to understand the difference between exploratory and explanatory data analysis.

As a presenter, you invest quite a bit of time gathering, compiling, slicing and understanding training data in a number of different ways (exploratory). Many presenters try, unsuccessfully, to present the exploratory data analysis work they have done with unfiltered spreadsheets, excessive bullet points, and complicated graphics. This is the fastest way to lose your executive audience by overwhelming them with data. Often, it leads to sidetrack discussions that use up precious time cutting your presentation short before you can get to the important insights.

The key to a successful data analytics presentation is to identify a select number of interesting or noteworthy insights from your exploratory analysis to present to executives. The chosen data analysis insights are the only part of the data communication your audience should see (explanatory). 

The Story

A great story grabs your attention, triggers an emotional response, and stays with you. Storytelling is a powerful tool that we can leverage to engage ever-distracted executives. 

Here are some tips to cultivate effective data storytelling for executives.

  1. Start with the end.

What message do you want to stay with the executives after you finish your story?

Knowing the key takeaways before you construct your story is a critical component to success.

Are you highlighting a success or a call to action?

The tone you want your presentation to convey will determine not only the flow of the story but also your design choices for data visualization.

What does a successful outcome look like?

Clarify the expectation and context with the requestor before you start building your presentation. Also, identify common ground with the decision makers and make sure to meet their needs while meeting your own.

What would you say if you only had 5 minutes to present?

Begin your story by understanding the situation context and knowing what story you want to tell. Make it succinct as possible and consider starting with a summary of your findings before launching into detail. A story that rambles on or has no discernable point reduces executive engagement as well as your credibility.

  1. Embrace conflict and emotion. Engaging stories court conflict and create tension the audience can feel.

A good story starts by setting the context in which the story takes place such as the setting, main characters, and the challenge they face (setup).

Next, intensify human interest by using vivid language, descriptive detail, and empirical evidence to build dramatic tension around the problem and persuade your audience of the need for action (conflict).

Finally, the most compelling part of the story is how that conflict is resolved to achieve the unexpected or the call to action of how the conflict could be resolved (resolution).

Create a compelling narrative structure. A powerful narrative can overcome the even the most boring presentation.

  1. Infuse persuasive authenticity. Can executives handle the raw and sometimes unpleasant truth? Yes, when told through an insightful and compelling customer impact story. Executives in particular appreciate the persuasive nature of the authentic.

Many presenters try to paint a pretty picture for executives, but the honest picture will more effectively resonate. Data is the supporting evidence in your story; however, there is usually supporting and opposing data – use both. By showing the good, the bad, and the ugly you build your credibility by highlighting solutions despite opposition and challenges.

Another common mistake people make when presenting to executives is the assumption of knowledge or expertise. There is an inherent belief that they must know better to be in such high-ranking positions. Remember, you are the subject matter expert that has analyzed the data and must take a confident stance in your recommendations or possible next steps based on your analysis.

The Visual

            Data visualizations help us to communicate information more effectively. Unfortunately, we are inundated with presentations that use poor examples of data visualizations or make no sense. There are so many bad data visualizations that entire websites are devoted to show casing them and dissecting what went wrong.

            Below are some tips to ensure effective data visualizations.

  1. Choose wisely. When deciding what to use to present your data analysis findings, first determine if you want to engage the verbal system or the visual system.

Tables engage the verbal system and should be used sparingly with minimal borders and shading to make the numbers stand out. If you have a mixed audience with different interests in your analysis findings, then a table is a good choice. Consider just presenting the data of interest by highlighting a few important numbers or creating a heatmap to focus executive attention where you want it. If the executives are reading a complete table on a slide, they are not listening to whatever you are saying. Be succinct in table presentations by simplifying.

Graphs engage the visual system and this is where presenters often make the wrong choice on which graph to use to present their findings. If you only have one or two numbers to present, use simple text with a little supporting text to make your point. When choosing a type of graph, remember points compare relationships, lines are continuous data, and bars are categorical data and should always have a zero baseline.


  1. What not to do.
  • 3D = 3 Don’t. Avoid using 3D as it can distort visual data and draws the eye away from the numbers you want to highlight with unnecessary elements.
  • Skip the desert. Donut and pie charts make your audience work too hard for the data by having to compare arc lengths or angles.
  • Empty sexy. If you are going to use an infographic, be sure to focus on the substance and not just the sexy. We have all seen infographics that are visually stunning but fail to inform.
  • Simply nothing. While it is important to simplify, do not oversimply your data by not providing enough data to interpret. You want to remove any unnecessary complexity on data visuals, but not strip it to the point of losing the data story.
  • Color me bad. Use color in presentations sparingly and consistently for maximum impact. Avoid red and green shades for the colorblind and consider the emotional trigger of the color you are using.
  • Heavy accents. Font size, color, and emphasis can be a visual que that builds a visual hierarchy when used sparingly or a visual distraction with overuse. Preattentive attributes can grab the viewers’ attention when used correctly.
  • Unethical presentation. Manipulating the data or changing the scale on visual data to make your analysis look more impressive is misleading and wrong. If someone notices the skew in your presentation data, it invalidates the data and extinguishes your credibility with executives.

Data Presentation Example

In the following file, I demonstrate a before and after example to illustrate how to improve the storytelling you do when presenting data to executives.  You can view the example here: Data_Presentation_Example


With mindful data storytelling and effective visuals, we reduce the cognitive burden by connecting our ideas with an emotion to persuade executives intellectually and emotionally. Presenting data to executives that enables them to make company decisions more efficiently increases your value as a training leader.

Topics: metrics, executive, dashboard, reporting

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