How to Tell Unforgettable Data Stories

talithia-williamsData can be the doorway to transformational change—if we’re brave enough to face the numbers and act on them, says Talithia Williams, associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. At the DRIVE/ Conference, May 17-18, 2016, in Seattle, Williams will explore how to make data digestible, useful and empowering.

Here, Williams offers her best pointers for delivering data stories.

CASE: In your popular TED Talk, “Own Your Body’s Data,” you discuss how to interpret the stories behind data. What are some key questions that advancement professionals should ask to flesh out what data are really saying?

Talithia Williams: Some of the questions we can ask are about what the data say and what the data do not say. So often in higher education, it’s easy to look at our retention rate and look at student success and not dig deeper into which students aren’t being successful.
I think some of the interesting questions that will transform an institution are the whistleblower questions: What is it that our university does poorly? [Those are] really the questions that are going to dig into what’s going to make your university a better place because they reveal where your weaknesses are.

[We must] be able to confront data in a way that’s going to better the institution and further its mission. For folks who are in advancement, [those questions include]: How do we find potential opportunities with people who aren’t connected to our university? How do we look for donors who might be a good match but haven’t connected to us in that way? Those are hard questions but that information is going to help us be better, ultimately. I always find it refreshing—at least in hindsight, it’s refreshing—to look at that info and see how we can be better.talithia-williams-tedtalk

You also talk about the power of information and taking ownership of data. What does that means?
”Owning” data means you are ready to act and make a decision in response to that data. What is it that’s going to change now that you have this new information? Often in the education and nonprofit sector, it’s hard to make that transformational change.

The nonprofit world is especially tricky, because depending on the nonprofit you work for, you may have funding that might last a year or two—how can you really be creative and broaden the funding your organization gets based on your data? It means being proactive and making decisions that are going to take you to a better place.

What are your best tips to explain data in a digestible way?

I teach upper level statistics courses, and when students do presentations, I often tell them they need to explain information to a tenth grader. I want them to explain it clearly but I need the visuals to be appealing to maintain the audience’s attention.

It’s the same thing for [any] audience. You’ve got folks in the room who aren’t data-savvy, who haven’t been indoctrinated in your data set for the last couple of months, and you’ve got to convey to them the importance of your data. I always start with explaining why the information I’m about to present is meaningful. Usually that means connecting the data to people in the room. If I’m presenting data on student retention and there are some administrators in the room who just want to know our institution’s retention rate, I might say, “This is really connected to the financial health [of our institution] because if we can retain more students, we get that tuition and room and board.” So, now I’ve got buy-in because I’ve connected it to an issue that everybody cares about.

So, number one: how do you connect your data to something that’s applicable to everyone you’re presenting it to? Simple is best.

What are your tips for creating effective visuals to help tell data stories?

I try to show things that people will understand. Rarely will I present a linear regression. People can easily understand tables and pie charts and histograms. That’s what I stick to when I’m giving a presentation.

How do you weave together hard numbers and anecdotal information to tell a cohesive story?

I would try to summarize the qualitative information, and then I would highlight the best ones. For instance: we got 23 thank you notes and here are the top two. I think people want to hear that. The qualitative is usually very meaningful. Quantitative information is helpful when you want to measure progress; it’s hard to measure progress with qualitative data. You do need the numbers when you say you want to go from, say, 14 percent alumni giving to 25 percent. But you also need to talk why alumni choose to give or not give and often that’s not on a five-point scale. Often those are very personal stories.

When I do survey design, to quantify those types of questions, I make a statement and then ask people the degree to which they agree with that between strongly agree and strongly disagree. That’s a way to get at qualitative information in a quantitative way.

What other ways do you use to make data presentations memorable?

One way to engage people is to throw out questions about your topic. If I were presenting on retention, I’d say, “What do you think our sophomore retention rate is?” instead of just presenting the data. Now, I’ve gotten people to think about the issue. Graphs are great but you also want to make sure you’re drawing [your audience] into the presentation.

At the end of the day, that’s what people remember. They’re going to remember how they were engaged, and they’ll remember the story that you told. If you can wrap your data around a student, a donor, an alumnus or an investor, people are going to take that away. Sure, you can communicate data beautifully in a graph but are people going to remember the numbers on the graph? Probably not. They’re going to remember how you connected it to them.

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