How to Communicate Big Data To Any Audience
Published on Mar 29, 2016 by Amy Cassell
Being able to understand and analyze big data is great, but if a business intelligence professional doesn’t know how to effectively communicate that data in a way everyone will understand, there’s a chance that data analysis may never get to make a difference.
“Knowing how to communicate data is critical,” says James Jessup, a former marketing research analyst and statistician who’s led his fair share of numbers-driven presentations. “If you can’t communicate what you’ve learned to decision-makers, your knowledge becomes unimportant.”
Jessup uses personal examples from his career to teach students in Full Sail University’s Business Intelligence master’s degree program. Courses like Business Intelligence Leadership & Communication Skills cover essential facets students need to universally convey data-driven research in a presentation setting. Below, Jessup shares a few of his tips for how to take complicated data and make it relatable for everyone in a meeting room.
Make it visually appealing.
“It’s no longer acceptable to just make a bar chart in Excel,” says Jessup. “Use high-quality images and graphics, and coordinate with the company’s color palette. As a business intelligence professional, think of yourself as a jeweler: Our job is to take data, chip off the dross, figure out what shape will best suit it, clean it up so that it sparkles, and then get it in front of the customer and showcase how great it is.”
Present shapes, not numbers.
Don’t show a meeting room a crammed PowerPoint presentation with small fonts and spreadsheets full of numbers: “It’s hard to derive a meaningful pattern from a spreadsheet,” says Jessup. “We’re much better at seeing shapes and colors.”
Use data visualization software.
Data visualization – using software to place data in a visual context – can really help tell a story; Full Sail’s Business Intelligence program dedicates an entire course to this creative reporting. Jessup prefers working in Excel and exporting his data to Tableau or Adobe Illustrator, but notes that there are a number of online programs available for creating infographics and other charts.
Know your audience – and give them what they want.
“When students first enter my classroom, I give them five ping-pong balls and tell them that’s their marketing budget,” says Jessup. “They have to toss those marketing dollars into a mason jar, which represents their customer. Unfortunately, I turn on a fog machine, shut off the lights, and hide the mason jar. When the students find the jar, they stand far from it and try to throw the ball in, invariably missing. I demonstrate that if they just stood closer, it would be easy to get the ball in the jar. The point is: If you don’t know your customers, it’s difficult to find them. Business intelligence can clear away the fog and turn on the lights.”
Jessup also believes data analysts should speak to an audience in the language it wants to hear. Different departments of a company speak in different terms, so don’t just showcase the data – instead use dollars, percentages, man-hours, and units to demonstrate how that data will actually translate in a specific business situation.
It’s important to be selective with data too. “Time is a scarce resource in a boardroom, and it should be used effectively,” says Jessup. “Knowing which data to present and why can make or break a presentation. Intelligence about the audience (not just business intelligence) can improve your visibility as a presenter and make your ideas shine. Learn everything you can, find out what's important, and make the entire presentation meaningful. Leave nothing to chance.”
Practice public speaking.
The simplest piece of advice is one of the most important: be prepared to stand in front of a potentially judgmental audience and get the message across. “Have you ever acted in a play?” asks Jessup. “That’s exactly how you put on a great show in a boardroom. You put on the Data Expert mask, and you give them a show.” Jessup suggests taking an improv comedy class or giving karaoke a whirl – anything that will help ease the potential fear of standing in front of a crowd is key. “I don’t think nervousness ever goes away,” says Jessup, “but you get used to it.”
Full Sail University’s Business Intelligence Master’s program provides students with the tools to manage, understand, and strategically utilize the wealth of data collected by modern businesses. To learn more, click here.