How to Avoid the blank stare when you’re telling a great story with Data (guest post from Candra McRae)

Jackalope readers: Y'all get to hear my thoughts, but there's a lot of other brilliant thoughts out there. Today's thoughts are from Candra McRae, expert in analytics and optimization testing. She is the founder and CEO of Lumodis, and a former Tableau Public featured author

Candra has a strong consulting track record in some top name analytics organizations -- which means she's done more than her fair share of client presentations. Below, you'll find some stellar, simple tips on how you can hook your audiences and keep them engaged in a world where you're competing for their attention. 

Love y'all, and huge thanks to Candra for sharing her expertise.


Throughout history, great storytelling has transcended borders, beliefs, and more to capture the imaginations and most importantly, the attention of people for hours.  I’ve read several articles that point to the rapid decline of the attention span – from 12 seconds in 2000 to around 8 seconds now – giving goldfish a slight edge over humans in that department.  The things competing for your attention has increased rapidly in the last 20 years, whether it is our smartphones or watches, nonstop email notifications, or whether you should cook or order takeout for dinner.  

We are constantly competing for what little bit of brain space that is present and focused on what’s in front of someone, so why do data practitioners insist on making our jobs harder by the way that we tend to present our findings that’s almost guaranteed leave our audience lost, confused, bored, defensive, and/or wanting a shot of bourbon by the time we’re finished?  The data cycle of doom usually looks a little like:

1. Someone has a business question or problem they think the data could help clarify or solve. 

2. You go into your data cave/lair/cubicle/whatever to find the data and figure out what it means.

3. You share your findings……because you want to show your stakeholders how deep your knowledge goes on the subject.  So, this usually looks like tables on tables of data, throwing out charts the way Oprah gave away cars, and a rapid fire talking style because you need to squeeze in 90 minutes worth of slides in the 15 minutes they gave you to present. 

4. You finish, look around the room while catching your breath, wait to revel in all of the nods of affirmation and delight from your audience.  Instead, you’re met with awkward silence and dreaded blank stares, people checking their phones, or if you’re dealing with an empathetic lot – they’ll tell you that you did a wonderful job, need to spend a little bit more time thinking about all of the information, and then file your analysis away never to see light of day.


This sucks…for you, for them, and for the amazing insights that will never be activated.  

Stories locked away in the data have the power to transform how a company understands its customers and identifies new market and product opportunities.  The insights derived from data are deserving of sunlight and action.  So, to see so many value-driving and potentially life-saving analyses being thrown in a desk drawer because of the way they were presented is gut-wrenching.  Of course, we can blame the audience for perceived inability to process information or focus.  But the truth is, the reason why people don’t get it has more to do with us than whatever shortcomings we believe our audience may have.  

Let’s break this destructive, value-destroying pattern that is all too common among data practitioners, so that we can drive impact and influence through well-understood and adopted insights.  I’ve created/adopted a 5-step storytelling framework to help make it easy to get my point across and increase the likelihood for action (which, honestly, is the only thing that matters) – most of this was learned in the school of hard knocks because I’ve had some epic crash and burn presentations when I failed to include these elements.

What are we talking about?

Create Focus and Understanding of Significance with a Solid Problem Statement.  Remember the 5 Ws: Who/What/When/Where/Why

What did you find?

Tell Them The Time, Not How to Build a Watch.  Focus on Outcomes, Save Technical Explanations for Your Peers.  Could a Stranger Off of the Street Lacking Context Understand the Point?

Present Findings in a Way that Makes the Brain Happy.  A good rule to live by is that seeing is fast and thinking is slow.  So, use visual cues like color, shape, position, size, etc. to help your audience quickly draw conclusions by leveraging the brain’s ability to detect patterns.  Here’s a good example of that rule in practice: It may take awhile to detect what’s different between the datasets if we focus on the image on the left, but within seconds we can quickly see what’s different in the image on the right.

Source: Anscombe’s Quarter

Pro Tips:
  • Less is More (Eliminate unnecessarily long legends, tick marks, colors)
  • Be Intentional with Color – understand the significance and limitations of certain hues (i.e., red/green and people with colorblindness)
  • Humans can only hold 6 things in our heads at one time – choose carefully
  • Mix it Up – Repetition fatigue is real…and seeing the same chart over and over again is BO-RING!

Why do I care?

Tie Your Findings to Something the Audience is Emotionally Invested In (e.g., higher productivity, the bottom-line, lives saved).  People are “me-focused,” so being explicit on what this finding means to their goals/aspirations/fears will help keep their attention and give them a personal stake in what you’re talking about.  

What should I do?

Avoid Unsupervised Thinking and Reduce the Barrier to Action by Advising Them on What YOU would Do If You Were in THEIR Shoes.
Bring Options and a Clear Recommendation.  That way, it shows that you have taken the time to consider alternatives and that your recommendation is the outcome of a very thorough assessment.

What are my next steps?

Make It Easy: Create A Clear, Tactical Action Plan on the Immediate Next Steps to Put the Recommendation in Motion.  Don’t make this an exhaustive list, but 2 or 3 things that need to happen now (e.g., meetings, approval protocol, etc.).

So, for your next data presentation.  Relax.  Show Some Personality (Seriously, it’s not a crime).  Follow These Steps.  Go From Data Zero to Insights Hero.  Become the Data Fan Favorite You’ve Always Been in Your Mind.  😊

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