Identify the audience and goal for a data story

1. Identify the action that should result from the data story by filling in the blank in this statement: "After this presentation, the audience for the data story should ________________."

Make this action the focus of the data story. The more direct it is, the better: If the blank is filled in with “…DO [something],” then you have a strong action statement. If the blank is filled in with “…approve additional analysis that will ultimately lead to [some action],” then there is an action statement, but it is weaker than a “DO” statement. This is okay, but it is more challenging to develop a compelling data story for this type of statement. If the blank is filled in with “…provide their thoughts on how we might be able to use the information I presented,” then this is a very weak action statement. Work to refine it so that there is a true action to be taken. If the blank is filled in with “…be informed about the situation,” then you do not actually have the basis for a data story.

2. Identify who is equipped to take that action by filling in the blank "After this presentation, the ________ should take action."

The audience for your data story is the person (or group of people) equipped to take the action you identified in the previous step. Think through specifically who should take the action and avoid the trap of thinking that the audience for your data story is everyone who will be in the meeting when it is presented. The more specific this is – a single name is ideal – the better. If the data story should lead multiple people to take the same action, then they can either be named or referred to by role. For example, “After this presentation, the email marketing managers should ensure there is a CTA within the first three sentences of any weekly promotional email.” Other individuals may consume the data story, but the more tightly you have identified the core audience – the people who will directly take action – the stronger your data story will be. This allows you to more effectively work through how to tailor the content and delivery of the presentation.

3. Confirm that your core audience will be present for the direct delivery of your data story, rather than sending an intermediary.

If your core audience declines the meeting due to a conflict, even if there is a large group scheduled for the presentation, reschedule the meeting.

4. Determine how familiar your core audience is with the situation you will be presenting.

Ask yourself the following questions: Before the presentation, how easily and accurately will the core audience be able to explain why you are presenting? The more accurately you feel they could explain why you are presenting, the more familiar they are with the situation. Did you conduct the analysis you will be presenting because the core audience came to you with a business problem, or was the analysis simply triggered by someone else or something you saw in the data? If it was initiated because of a business problem identified by your core audience, then they are likely already more familiar with the situation than if the analysis was initiated elsewhere. Based on your answers to these questions, rate the audience’s familiarity with the situation as High, Medium, or Low. If you rated the familiarity as High, spend a minimal amount of time setting the stage and explaining why you conducted the analysis. Conversely, if you rated the familiarity as Low, then start the presentation by taking time to clearly explain what prompted the analysis in the first place. Remember: this is about your core audience only.

5. Determine your core audience's familiarity with the data you will be presenting by questioning the data and sources used in the analysis that led to the data story you will be presenting.

Has your core audience worked with the data directly themselves? Does your core audience reference and use the data regularly? How confident are you that your core audience could define the metrics used in the presentation? The more familiar and comfortable your core audience is with the data used in the analysis, the less explanation of the data itself will be needed in the presentation. Be careful: the purpose of the data story is not to teach your core audience about the data. If it is important for them to understand, for example, what a “view-through conversion” is, and you do not think that is a metric they have worked with before, then it is important to pause and explain that metric.

6. Match your presentation flow to the preferred communication style of your core audience.

This can be challenging if your core audience comprises multiple people, but it is still worth considering how they typically take in presentations: Do they typically sit quietly through the entirety of presentations and then ask questions at the end? If so, then be sure to leave enough time at the end of your presentation to have that discussion. Do they typically interrupt the presenter with questions and comments mid-presentation? If so, then include “any questions or thoughts?” points throughout the presentation. This doesn’t have to be in the slides, but should be in the plan for the delivery of the presentation. Do they tend to focus directly on the presenter when it comes to questions and comments, or do they engage others who are in the audience? Be prepared (mentally) for whatever their style is, and plan to match that style as you present. If you’re not familiar with the core audience’s communication style in presentations, then ask colleagues who are. Use the questions above as a guide.

7. Identify the level of trust you have with your core audience to determine the credibility you will need to demonstrate within the presentation itself.

Have you worked with the core audience successfully on multiple past projects? If so, then you likely have developed a high level of trust with them. Is this the first time you have worked with the core audience? If so, then you likely have a lower level of trust. Have you worked with the core audience in the past, but on some projects that were rocky? Again, you likely have lower trust if that is the case. Having a lower level of trust is not inherently a bad thing. It simply means: You cannot afford to have any wrong data in the analysis. Triple-check your work. You need to be transparent about how you reached the conclusions in your data story: ensure you have included clear evidence for any recommendations you make. Be careful: developing a presentation when you have not yet developed a high level of trust with the core audience does not mean “showing all of your work.” It simply means showing the clear progression of steps you took that led you to your final conclusions and recommendations.

8. Review your answers to each of the questions covered in this playbook as you develop your presentation and use them as an assessment of the final draft to ensure the presentation has maximum impact.

It is easy to let the presentation content and flow drift away from a focus on the audience and action as you develop it. As you work on your presentation, revisit your completed audience assessment to check that you’re still focusing on the core audience and expected presentation outcome: Does the presentation make the case for the action you have identified? Does it focus on the core audience – the person/people equipped to take that action? Is the core audience still slated to be present for the presentation, or does its delivery need to be rescheduled? Does the presentation provide the right amount of explanation given your core audience’s familiarity with the situation? Does the presentation provide the right amount of detail about the underlying data and analysis that was conducted, given your core audience’s familiarity with the data? Is the planned style of your delivery of the presentation tailored to what you know about the core audience’s preferred style for receiving information? Does the presentation demonstrate your level of expertise and credibility as needed with the level of trust you developed with the core audience?