I was at a conference recently when I heard a phrase new to me – one that summed up the answer to an old problem that I feel strongly about. The phrase – DATA JOURNALISM – spoke to the heart of the difference between analysis and action.
I have often looked at the way a newspaper structures its content and I think the world of business could learn something from this. Journalists use a headline to explain the point of the whole story. The more you read the more informed you become, but you could stop reading at any point without missing out on the point of the story. Now I can hear much scoffing at the back. Yes, there are moments when journalists could learn from us about data accuracy and mis-representation of information – but let’s put that aside for now, as it’s missing the point.
What are good journalists really good at?
They change things. The way we see the world, the way we feel about something, how we behave. And they do this through stories – not numbers, charts and tables. They persuade and incite a reaction. As customer insight leaders, isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing too? So what can we learn from journalists about the presentation of our facts?
Context is everything. Without context a number is meaningless. And still I hear people talk about their NPS® of 45. Is that good? Bad? I have no idea, so why should I care?
To build a story we need context and comparison to establish a setting. What is the score of your competitors? How has market share and revenue changed? How have scores changed through time? Is there a link? What actions drive the scores? With just a few questions born from a small amount of commercial curiosity we start to see the beginnings of a story. And each story needs a purpose – let’s become the market leader. It needs some characters – you, your customers and the competition. Then it needs a plot – how have things changed and where are the differences? But let’s not forget the most important part – where is this heading and how can we make it better? Now we have a story that people might listen to and – critically – act upon.
But a score on its own? So what? Back to sleep.
Data is like any other raw material. It takes effort to make something from it – and this requires a mix of skills, some technical, some creative, some artistic. On the relatively rare occasions that businesses really do this, it’s incredibly successful. In fact it was discussed at length at one of our recent events in London. We have a number of customers who’ve used storytelling like this to engage employees around the company and get their buy-in to a Voice of the Customer program. The stories they told were of real customers and real situations – and there wasn’t a pie chart to be seen!
If you want an example of how this can work, I’d recommend the work of Hans Rosling – you may have heard of him. Ten years ago he used world health and economic data to dispel myths about the developing and the developed world. This data was sitting there, publicly available, but no one could see the story. It took a DATA JOURNALIST to bring the story to life and show us the world had changed. Ten years on, we could all still learn from this.
Here’s Hans at work – worth a watch.
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