For more than thirty years, Nancy Duarte and her team of design professionals have created some of the most important presentations in the world. From Al Gore’s slides for An Inconvenient Truth to product launches for hundreds of top brands, Duarte knows how to use visuals to tell stories.
In her new book, DataStory, Duarte reveals specific communication strategies to turn data into inspiring and actionable stories. It’s a skill that business professionals at every level need to learn to stand out. A survey by Deloitte Consulting concludes that being comfortable with data is an essential skill for “anyone who wants a shot at a well-compensated position.”
Readers of my column know that I focus on leadership communication through the lens of storytelling. That’s where Duarte’s book is an invaluable resource. “Storytelling makes the brain light up in a way no other form of communication does,” she says. Stories bring people closer together and, most importantly for leaders, move them to act.
But how does data tell a story, exactly? Numbers are cold and objective. “Data doesn’t speak for itself; it needs a storyteller,” writes Duarte.
I worked through DataStory slowly because every page is a revelation. One of the most intriguing sections of Duarte’s book explains how to craft a data point-of-view (DataPOV).
Your DataPOV should be a big idea that’s comprised of two parts: what action needs to be taken and what’s at stake. It should be expressed in a complete well-constructed sentence with a noun and a verb.
For example, let’s say you’ve been tasked with analyzing your company’s online sales activity.
This is a DataPOV: “Changing the shopping cart experience and shipping policies could increase sales by 40 percent.”
This is not a DataPOV: “Fix our online shopping cart.”
Do you see the difference? The first statement is a complete sentence with a strong action verb (changing) and a clear, specific outcome (40% increase). It’s the cornerstone of a recommendation. It’s a way to give your listeners confidence in your analysis.
Duarte’s DataPOV strategy can easily fit into the classic dramatic arc that all great stories share—even great business presentations.
You can see the three-act structure in the graph below.
This is the beginning of the story that describes where the business is today.
This is the messy middle where a conflict (the villain) is introduced.
This is the end where the hero confronts the adversary and resolves the conflict.
Now let’s see how a business professional can use the three-act structure and the DataPOV to sell a conclusion, idea and recommendation.
Act 1: “The average subscription renewal rate per region is 62 percent.” In this act the speaker describes the current situation.
Act 2: “Only 23 percent of clients in the western region renew their subscriptions.” In this act the speaker describes the conflict that must be addressed.
Act 3: “We need to tailor our content to appeal to regional preferences to gain market share in the west.” The speaker resolves the conflict with a strong recommendation.
As the world becomes increasingly complex and data bombards us at every turn, your career might depend on how effectively you communicate the story behind the numbers. “Leaders in all sectors spend large sums of money collecting and analyzing data, yet the value comes when someone convincingly communicates what the data reveals,” writes Duarte.
“If you put the work into developing communication skills, you’ll see your career and company do things you never thought possible.” Elevate your communication skills and you’ll be surprised at what you achieve.