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Stories They Can Feel: Using Data to Make a Real Difference

photo credit: ryersonstudentaffairs.com
photo credit: ryersonstudentaffairs.com

Originally posted on www.ryersonstudentaffairs.com on May 25, 2016.

I’ve been an active participant in #SAassess discussions online and at conferences for over a year. In that time I’ve learned a huge amount from a lot of extremely talented Student Affairs professionals about how to integrate assessment into our practice, however, I’ve also noticed a marked emphasis in the discussion about how we can collect good data. We spend a lot less time talking about how we can use results to drive our decisions.

First, let’s be clear. Data can’t make good decisions—only you can do that. Assessment results will give you the tools to help hone your decision-making muscles, but ultimately, you are responsible for the outcomes of your choices. I know we like to think of ourselves as wholly rational people when it comes to workplace decision-making, but the truth is that even the most hard-nosed professionals will “go with their gut” when making a call. Our decisions are rooted in values, culture, and especially our emotions.

This means that you have to be open to the story your data needs to tell. Analyzing and interpreting data requires a high level of self-awareness, humility, and courage because you’ll have to be open to critique and ready to acknowledge failures as well as successes. Trust your values and your emotions to guide you, but remember to ask why before you make your decisions. It helps to bring others into the process when you can, so take your results to strategic planning meetings and ask what others think that they mean.  You could try sending out your results ahead of a meeting and asking people to come prepared to talk about what they found interesting. Or set aside time in your planning to talk about what visualizations people react best to when looking at data. As soon as you engage people directly with data, they are far more likely to buy into change based on that information, and then tell that data story to others.

It doesn’t end with you. The most important thing you must do with your data is share it broadly and that’s why open data versus closed data is a huge topic of discussion right now. In my earlier post about Storytelling & Assessment, I talked about using stories to help us humanize our data and make it relatable. This isn’t just fluff advice, it’s becoming more and more clear that statistics and data on their own won’t move our agenda forward. If you want to motivate others to support you, then you need to give them stories they can feel.

“Data storytelling is a structured approach for communicating data insights, and it involves a combination of three key elements: data, visuals, and narrative.

It’s important to understand how these different elements combine and work together in data storytelling. When narrative is coupled with data, it helps to explain to your audience what’s happening in the data and why a particular insight is important. Ample context and commentary is often needed to fully appreciate an insight. When visuals are applied to data, they canenlighten the audience to insights that they wouldn’t see without charts or graphs. Many interesting patterns and outliers in the data would remain hidden in the rows and columns of data tables without the help of data visualizations.

Forbes Narrative, Data, Visuals Venn Diagram

Image from Forbes.com.

Finally, when narrative and visuals are merged together, they can engage or even entertain an audience.” Forbes Magazine

But what does data storytelling actually look like? After scouring the Internet, I found a bunch of articles with vague platitudes about the importance of data stories, but no information about what a good one consists of. So here is my own take on how you might craft a story that presents your data in a compelling way.

Sharing Your Data

Ask yourself: how are you already sharing your data? Who are your most important partners and stakeholders? Have they seen the results? How did you present it to them? The key to effectively sharing your data is to know what you want from the people reading it. Are you looking for people to join a collaborative effort? Are you asking for more resources or recommending change? Are you practicing transparency and making yourself accountable? Knowing what feelings and actions you want your data to elicit will define how you structure your story and what information you choose to share.

Visualizing Your Data

Visuals provide instant context and allow your audience to see your data relative to other information. Visualizations include simple charts, graphs, or graphics, but can also be as complex as detailed infographics or data maps. These visual aids help us to cut through the deluge of data that is showered down on people in this age of information. By providing context, the visual is setting the stage for your data story, and providing a higher level of interactivity between viewers and your data. To learn more about the power of data visualization, check out this Ted Talk by David McCandless.

There is a balance between oversimplifying your data and providing too much detail. You need to know and understand your audience before you can create a good visual for them. Are they experts who will want more detail and less story? Are they new to the topic and will need background information included? Answer those questions and then you’ll have a better idea of how in-depth your data should be.

Finally, your visualizations should support your storytelling by helping viewers get to the point quickly. Whether it is a standalone image or part of a report or presentation, it should contribute to the story you’ve designed to get your audience feeling and thinking what you want. Know the difference between decoration and explanation in your imagery and stick to the point.

Writing Your Story

Written reporting is quite possibly one of the most important ways we can share data since it is where most people will end up when they look for more information. Remember—know what you want from the people who will read it. It’s worth your time to make different versions depending on your audience, and it shouldn’t take you much longer than it would if you tried to cram all this information into one longer report. Here are some writing tips for different audiences:

  • If you’re looking for collaboration, focus on developing an emotional response to your program. Tell a story about people who participated, about the experiences of current partners, and about the future of the community if we can come together. Statistics and numbers are useful, but shouldn’t be the main focus.
  • Asking for more resources or recommending change means focusing more on presenting your hard data that can support this ask. You still want to develop that emotional response, but you’ll have to back up your ask with a rationale that includes relevant data.
  • One of the core purposes of assessment is to make ourselves accountable. If you’re preparing something to share with the wider community for accountability purposes then you want to write about the here and now. Talk about the planning and preparation and what you learned from actually executing the project. Highlight benefits and make sure to talk about challenges and pitfalls. It’s not accountable if you try to hide areas for improvement, and readers won’t buy a story that’s only full of sunshine and daisies.

Talking About Your Data

I’m sure you’ve heard it before—the best presentations centre around a story. Your story doesn’t have to be about a person. It could be about a project, or a place, or even an object. Really, the story can be about anything you want. The key to designing a good storied presentation is to start with a focus on your main character (person, place, or thing), relate something that happens to it, and how your main character ended up somewhere else because of the thing that happened it. Stories are always journeys.

Say I’m doing a presentation about Orientation programming at Ryerson: I might start out with a history of the program from 5 years ago (perhaps through the perspective of a hypothetical student who attended), talk about how the campus and our students have changed since then, and then relate how the program has grown based on data results. Then I could finish up by talking about what still needs to happen (again with supporting data), and how people can get involved. Audience members will feel like the presentation is about something that matters to them and that the information is going to take them somewhere new. If I wanted to bore the pants off of people I could just start with “OK, I’m going to go through our findings from the last 5 years and share with you our takeaways.” Bathroom break anyone?

Regardless of whether you are giving a presentation, writing an article, creating a report, or just talking to someone in the hall, you should always start by hooking your audience into the part of the story that you think will resonate most with them. Do you want to awaken their empathy by sharing the challenges you’re facing? Would you rather energize them by talking about the positive ending or a call-to-action? Or perhaps you want to make them self-reflective and open-minded by sharing a personal story? This will set the tone for your entire story, so put some time into understanding your audience, what they’re looking for, and what you want them to take away.

Recognize Your Role In Your Stories

Stories are compelling because they are told by compelling people. If you think like a storyteller each day you come to work, you’ll be ready to mine your daily experiences for useful anecdotes. Recognize your emotions and what brings them out. Chances are you’re not alone, and sharing these moments will help you bring people together. Remember, the perspective of the storyteller can drastically change the story itself, so take the time to research yourself and understand how your lens can influence others.

A year of reading, writing, talking, and learning about assessment has only deepened my commitment to spread a culture of assessment within Ryerson Student Affairs and beyond. Ever since I started working here I’ve held onto the idea that the core philosophy of Student Affairs is student-centredness. It’s a key reason why we attract people who tend towards passion, caring, and a commitment to improving the lives of people around them. We want the best for our students, but we have to acknowledge that we can’t deliver unless we know our own limits. This year has taught me that it is not enough to care and empathize with our students. We have to check ourselves to make sure that our best intentions are translating into the transformative experiences we try to design. This means if we’re not doing quality assessment of our work, then we cannot truly call ourselves student-centred. The good news is that quality assessment is easily within our reach and I hope that this blog series has made a difference by changing how you view your work and encouraging you to adopt or share best practices in assessment.

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography