Eek! There's a Human in Your Data

When presenting data It's easy TO stay focused on the number. But remember that there are real people with real concerns and emotions behind those numbers.

During the SAS Analytics Experience conference I hosted a table talk about "Persuading with Data". A table talk allows likeminded participants to discuss an issue and share common experiences. I like these talks because everyone contributes with a unique viewpoint. It's not easy to persuade with data, there are several factors to consider. First even with the best data in the world, you don't always win. People are not always moved by facts and statistics. It's true.

I had examples of how persuading with data had failed. We discussed how the need to establish common ground with your audience is a must. One astute participant said too often data professionals failed to see "the human in the data". We have to humanize the data, he repeated. It was quite astounding to hear because I knew I was guilty.

Several years ago I heard David McCandless speak. At the time the phrase "data is the new oil" was popular. He presented data as the "new soil". This point resonated with me. Yes! Data allows organizations to bring issues to light, solve problems, and improve processes. How exciting! Let’s get busy massaging, cleansing, and visualizing it! Not once did I think of the data as representing a human.

But in the data I use each day, there is a human on each row. Someone withdrawing money from an ATM for a birthday gift. Someone following a web link about the features of a new car. Someone registering a complaint about a debt she already paid. Some of these tables have millions of rows -- millions of people.

This is where the data story enters. This participant explained that a company needed to change a departmental work flow process. No one was using the process and it was causing issues. Seems like a slide deck with graphs breaking down the process issues was in order. A bar graph and even a few pie charts for good measure would work. They took a different route. The pulled the employee names from the data table and interviewed each of them about the process issues they had.

The resulting presentation highlighted each employee’s experience in a data narrative. It was a success as the management team was better able to understand the human side of the issue. It wasn't flashy graphics and hard data that convinced, it was the data stories -- the humans in the data. It was more persuasive in fact. He made a brilliant point about thinking of other ways to present data.

Think about whether your data has a real human in it.