The marketing industry has played a large role in figuring out how to best get information across to audiences. I realize we’re in the planning-world here…so bear with me, folks.
“Storytelling” is something marketing experts have been talking about for years, as a better way to communicate brands, products, and what sets businesses apart. It’s now a recognized, tried and true approach, and one that has taken a firm foothold due to its effectiveness. Our customer experiences online are, in large part, shaped by “stories” that marketers have set up for us to more easily get to know what they’re selling, and eventually buy it.
Because of this success, storytelling is now quickly making its way into business vernacular, specifically with respect to data. With so much data being collected over the course of doing normal business, we need better ways to communicate that data (the stuff we’re “selling”), in such a way that it can be easily consumed (“buying it”).
Technology is providing us gigantic leaps in data visualization capability for business writ large, but how best to leverage these new capabilities in a way that allows us to easily grasp the information is still, and probably always will be, evolving. The same is true in the planning world.
In project management our stories tend to be question-driven, are similar between initiatives, yet differ depending on where we’re at in the process, or at what level we want to view the information. Here are some examples:
1 – What is our plan and are there options to choose from?
2 – Who is responsible for what?
3 – How long do we think it will take?
4 – What will it cost?
5 – How will we measure ourselves?
1 – How are we progressing?
2 – Where are we falling behind?
3 – What can we do to fix the issues popping up?
4 – How are we tracking against estimates?
5 – Are there any new decisions to be made based on what has been learned so far?
1 – How did we measure against our estimates?
2 – What are the occurrences that we can take forward in our business to learn from, and improve?
1 – Where are my risks and financial exposures the largest?
2 – What can be fast-tracked, if necessary?
3 – When can I expect revenue, and at what scale?
4 – Do I have any patterns of success or delays across my portfolio?
These questions/stories are very high-level and not at all-inclusive, but are where a manager might start when they begin to design their actual plan communications (a.k.a. data visualizations).
Often, we jump straight into attempting to squish many of these things together into a single visual, either because we’re asked to, or because we’re driven by an inherent attempt to “wow” our audience (see our blog titled “Simplicity is courageous” …is BRILLIANT). But this is the wrong approach.
By lumping lots of varying data into a chart, we end up making two very big mistakes:
1 – Delivering too many options of focus, which slows us down as a reader, because we’re deliberately camouflaging each story. In order to absorb each dimension of data, we have to somehow bring forth each one separately in our mind’s eye, before we can consume them together. This is very difficult to do, so why not isolate each one from the get-go, into its own visual? If we do this, the information our audience needs to absorb will become much more simple and clear…and that is what we want!
2 – Scott Berinato quotes the psychologist Robyn Dawes in his book “Good Charts:” … “cognitive capacity shuts down in the absence of a story.” If we cram a bunch of different dimensions of data into one visual, we’re diluting the narrative of each. If, instead, we extract those dimensions into separate pages/images, our readers will be better able to quickly grasp the information they needed…to read the stories.
In conclusion, I’m suggesting that, as communicators, we first need to uncover what it is that our audience needs to know…what story they need to be told (using the data), and then create a visual for each (at least).
I love the story-time image above because it’s actually not too far off when it comes to business. Although our audiences aren’t children, they’re not intimately familiar with the project data that we’re often presenting. We, as the project managers and schedulers, eat, sleep, and breathe this data, but our sponsors and actors often have to learn what it is they are looking at, to some extent, each time you present to them.
On top of that, our audiences often suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, when it comes to plan communications; they like to tell us what they want to see, even though they actually have no expertise in the fields of communications, graphic design, data visualization, or planning. If you’re working on gaining knowledge in those areas, don’t hide it. At some point, when you feel confident enough that you can make positive changes, propose a concerted effort for improvement in your plan communications.