Ability to explain analytical results vital to gaining executive buy-in

They've purchased the analytics tools, but executives may not buy the results, especially if they don't understand what the numbers are saying.

It may have come as a surprise for analytics professionals to learn that they are not in the analytics business. Instead, according to Jeff Zeanah, they are salespeople and, as corny as it sounds, arbiters of change. 

"If we are presenting information, we are in the change management business," said Zeanah, president of Z Solutions Inc., a consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga.

It may seem farfetched, but it ultimately comes down to this: Uncovering patterns in data does not equate to implementing those findings. The latter hinges on the messenger's ability to communicate the information to the people who make decisions.

That can make for a tough sale when the decision maker doesn't speak analytics, Zeanah said. But while difficult, it is not impossible. In his presentation "Explaining analytics to others -- simplified" at SAS Institute Inc.'s Analytics 2012 Conference Series last week, Zeanah said that explaining analytical results requires knowing your audience and creating the right environment.

With that, Zeanah introduced attendees to the following four realities:

You are living in a nonquantitative world. Although that may be hard to accept, you need to prepare yourselves for the decision makers who reside in the "math is hard" camp.

"Even if they're not like that, numbers are hard," Zeanah said. "Even we make mistakes; even we misinterpret the numbers. That's something to remember."

An easy way to connect with the audience is to visualize the data with graphics. Showing, he said, can be more impactful than telling.

Executives hate statistics. They would, Zeanah said, because executives were poorly introduced to statistics during their business school days, and most haven't developed a love for it since then.

Analytics professionals, on the other hand, are probably comfortable using statistical terms, but incorporating them into presentations with business executives may create more walls than clear lines of communication.

It's a good idea to swap out those statistical terms for business terms. Or lead with the basics -- what your audience knows -- and rename the description with the proper term later in your presentation.

"In the last few years, I've realized I have to take this to a massive extreme," said Zeanah, adding that even concepts such as standard deviation may need to be translated.

Decisions are illogical. The tricky part, Zeanah said, is that business decisions don't always have a clear answer. Even with analytics becoming a growing presence in most organizations, the numbers only provide support.

Decisions, in other words, are also influenced by the decision maker who introduces emotion, instinct and even mental shortcuts into the process -- what's called "loss aversion," Zeanah said.

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For example, when a group of doctors were asked to choose between two plans to combat a fictional deadly outbreak, they overwhelmingly selected the plan that detailed the number of potential survivors. Yet, realistically, both options presented the exact same outcome and only the wording was different.

"They did not internalize the numbers," Zeanah said. "Personally, I believe it is a flaw in the presentation."

To avoid that kind of presentation gaffe, executives have to more than understand what's being placed in front of them. They have to own it.

"That means [that] for people to be comfortable with analytical observations, they have to discover it for themselves," he said. "This is the big change I've made in presenting information, and it has really worked: If they discover it for themselves, they'll go with it."

You are in the change management business. Numbers are hard, statistics are hard, internalizing information is hard, and so is change, Zeanah said.

People tend to resist this one because it can create fear, a feeling of powerlessness, inertia and the absence of self-interest. But of his four realities, he labeled this one as the most important.

One way to help your audience transition more easily is to avoid presenting new information for the first time at the big meeting, according to Zeanah. Call people ahead of time, ask questions and loop them in before the formal presentation.

"If you get one-on-one meetings, you can address the four fears," he said. "Accept inertia. You can't address that one, but you can at least recognize that it's there."

And, he said, for those executives who are hard to snag a meeting with, do whatever it takes to catch a few minutes in the hallway or the stairwell, even if you get just a snippet of time. Not only can informal meetings give people room to ask questions they may shy away from asking in a bigger group, but they also give your audience more space to own the material.

"You want to lead a process of self-discovery," Zeanah said. "It's a wonderful aspect, and it's something we don't get to do a whole lot of."

This was first published in October 2012

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