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How to make your data influential

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A practical decision-making function is the heartbeat of every business.

In the past, people made decisions that relied heavily on heuristics and hunches; it was impractical to analyse problems at a truly granular level. But that has changed. The breath-taking proliferation of data and the parabolic rise in processing power have given us the means to enrich and improve our decision-making capabilities.

To fulfil this higher purpose, data must be presented in a way that resonates and influences a wide variety of users.

The importance of storytelling

“Data doesn’t mean anything until you turn it into a story.”

Those were the words of Mohammed Mosam, Director of Sage AME, during a recent CFOSA webinar on data visualisation. He’s spot on.

We justify every decision we make using a background story we’ve concocted. Then we lean on the facts and figures to prove that our decision was rational.

Our thought process might go like this: I bought the shoes because I’ve worked hard and deserve them (story). And they were 20% off, so technically, I also saved money (facts and figures).

Without the story, the numbers lose their power to influence. And therein lies an important lesson for those using data in business – if you want your findings to change the way things are done, they need to be embedded in a story.

That narrative must:

  1. Deal with a problem that matters to your customers, employees, or suppliers; and
  2. Use data that makes it easy to understand the story.

Together, this will give your audience a reason to act and the necessary information to rationalise their decision.

Begin with the end in mind

It’s tempting to dive headlong into the data, searching for an insightful pattern. But if their findings don’t connect with a bigger problem, their output risks redundancy. So to make a meaningful contribution, they must instead work backwards by starting with a defined problem.

These sentiments were echoed by Gerhard Hartman, Vice President of Medium Business for Sage Africa & Middle East, during the webinar.

“The first step is to identify the burning issue in your organisation that you would like to fix. Then ask if that challenge can be addressed using data,” he said.

In other words, with clarity around the problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll have a better idea of the story or narrative that your data needs to help create. In turn, that should also help narrow your field of view to only the information that matters.

That focus is important for two reasons:

  • First, it’ll prevent you from sliding into irrelevant, time-consuming tangents within the data.
  • Second, it’ll rid your narrative of superfluous findings that might distract your audience from your key message.

The next step is to communicate that message with simplicity and speed, giving your audience actionable and timely insights they can use to make better decisions.

Data visualisation in practice

For a story to take hold and inspire action, you need most of your audience to believe it. That’s why it’s so important that data insights are presented in a form that’s easy for a variety of people to understand.

And here’s the crux of it: people process visual stimuli faster and more effectively than they do ones and zeros. That means, where possible, choose to represent your data visually.

Not only are graphics or illustrations less demanding on us from a cognitive perspective, but they also tend to be more memorable and carry a greater ability to make us feel emotion – both are key for compelling storytelling.

There is, however, a lot of art to the science of data visualisation.

Nicole Daniels, Head of Metrics, Insights and Analysis at Standard Bank, and Sam Hopwood, Chief Financial Officer of Mars Africa, explored the practical aspects of data visualisation in the latter half of the webinar. Here are some of the key insights they shared:

  • Data visualisations, and the dashboards they populate, must be intuitive and user friendly to be impactful.
  • Strive for visuals that tell a story without the need for a presenter or that use so few numbers that anyone in your business could pick them up and find meaning.
  • Understand that data is often imperfect but don’t let that stifle your efforts to draw insights from it.
  • Build in the functionality to drill down into your data visualisations so that you can get to the root cause of any issue.
  • Finance teams should embrace the automation of manual tasks to give themselves more time to focus on generating insights from the data they have.

In summary, if you want your data to influence decision-makers, it needs to tell a story about a clearly defined problem that matters to them.

Use data visualisation extensively to democratise your findings and make the story easier to understand and stand behind.

The Future of Finance: Data Visualisation Webinar

Want to learn how you can make your data influential? Hear from Gerhard Hartman, VP, medium segment, Sage AME, and Mohammed Mosam, director, Sage AME; Nicole Daniels, Head: metrics, insights and analysis, Standard Bank; and Sam Hopwood, CFO of Mars Africa, on how you can present data in a way that resonates and influences a wide variety of users.

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