Explaining changes in data

Reporting is politics, in that when you stand in front of people to present a report, it’s because you want them to take away a message; and you want that message to result in them taking some action. Just like a political speech, there’s a story you want to tell, and the story needs to be memorable and presented in a way that the audience — whether they prefer the message or not — can accept and process.

If you were a candidate for office bringing up a sensitive topic — gun control, say, or health care: something that the audience has a diversity of strongly-held opinions on — you’d want to design what you had to say so that they understood not only the point you were trying to make, but how you arrived at that point, and what were the alternatives you considered. Basically, that you’re a decent person who means well, and here’s what you found, and here’s what it might or does mean.

It’s surprising how often people will get up in front of a crowd and throw out never-before-seen data and expect the audience to go with the flow. On the contrary: if the conclusion is new, people have a built-in tendency to challenge it directly, in real time. Their thoughts (and sometimes their words) go like this:

  • “Where’d you get that data?”
  • “Those numbers are wrong.”
  • “That’s not what my reports show.”
  • “Whose side are you on?”

The most confidence-building thing you can do is tell people the back story, and call an interpretation what it is. Where DID the data come from, and how’d you compile it, and why did you conclude whatever you concluded about what it means; and what’s my takeaway, and why? If there could be many interpretations of the data, just to acknowledge that gives you instant credibility and rapport. To explain the possible holes in the data — this number is very solid; that number is definitely directionally correct but not precise; and here’s why the difference; in essence, here’s what we don’t know — goes a tremendous way toward dissolving any antipathy about motives or truth. Hey, we’re admitting the imprecision of this data, and admitting what we don’t know; you can make your own decision, but here’s our interpretation and why. Minds open, defenses go down; people become ready to hear.