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Data storytelling skills get key role in analytics process

People with good data storytelling skills are becoming big contributors to the data analytics process in organizations looking to make info more understandable to business execs.

One of the most important people on the data analytics team that Pamela Peele manages isn't a data scientist or an analyst at all. She's a former journalist whose job is to employ data storytelling techniques to help communicate the team's analytical findings in a way that corporate executives and business managers can easily understand.

A journalist or other communications expert with strong storytelling skills "should be one of the persons you hire" for an analytics team, said Peele, chief analytics officer at healthcare system UPMC's insurance services division in Pittsburgh. "People are accustomed to consuming information and knowledge in ways that professional journalists are trained to serve it up."

Effective data visualization and storytelling can also increase the reach of data analysis results in an organization, Peele said during a presentation at the Strata + Hadoop World 2015 conference in San Jose, Calif. For example, one of the things the journalist did after joining the team at UPMC was to give a series of blandly titled "Clinical Process Reports" a more engaging name: "Program Vital Signs." That step and other improvements to the reports helped drive broader usage of them, according to Peele, who tracks distribution of the documents electronically and gets insight into how her team's findings are influencing business processes and strategies during meetings with other C-level executives.

In a keynote speech at the 2015 TDWI Executive Summit in Las Vegas, consultant, author and Babson College professor Tom Davenport similarly recommended hiring "translators who can tell stories with data."

Also at the TDWI event, Mike Lampa, managing director of consultancy Archipelago Information Strategies, pointed to "data journalists" who combine analytics and communication skills as a must for analytics teams looking to explain their algorithms and predictive models to business execs. "The key," Lampa said, "is transposing the complex mathematical minutiae into a business story."

Andrew Storey, vice president of decision sciences at Toronto-based Scotiabank, hasn't hired workers specifically for their ability to communicate with the financial services company's business users. But Storey said he has tapped a couple of his analysts who are better at that than others to lead the process of explaining analytics approaches and results.

What you definitely don't want, Peele said, is to end up with data scientists patting themselves on the back for producing analytics results that no one else looks at or uses because of a lack of data storytelling skills. "We have to influence the organization," she noted. "Otherwise, we have to go home."

Craig Stedman is executive editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at, and follow us on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

Next Steps

Get tips on effective data storytelling techniques from consultant Tony Bodoh

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Read a profile of Joe DeCosmo, chief analytics officer at Enova International Inc.

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Has your organization invested in data storytelling capabilities to help explain the results of analytics applications to business executives?
Good communication is so, so important. I can't say that enough. You really need to know your audience and have some kind of idea of their technical background and how technical they prefer their communications. 

A lot of people could really try to be a little more thoughtful of how they present their communications. Most people (other than maybe the micro-manager type) prefer their communications concise and straightforward. It needs to be clear why this information is important to them. 

When overwhelmed with too much information in too great detail, a lot of people will simply skim and then put the email or document aside. They might intend to go back and focus on it in more detail later, but they probably never will. 
Thanks for your comment, abuell -- good points. A related comment from Pamela Peele at UPMC that didn't make it into the story: Analytics teams generate "a lot of knowledge, and we rain it down like crazy on our organizations. And a lot of it just falls on the ground."
Can anybody give me an opinion on if this can be done on a freelance basis?
Good question, Savant. I don't know for sure, but I would hazard a guess that there might be freelance opportunities -- particularly in smaller organizations that don't want (or can't afford) to hire someone full-time.
Boy, that'd be a fun thing to have on a resume. "Storyteller."

I've actually run into people with this as a title but typically they're more marketing people, with less involvement in big data per se.
Agreed, Sharon Fisher -- I don't think there are many "data storyteller" titles out there now. More common is the approach at Scotiabank: tapping some data analysts who are good communicators to interact with business execs. Budgeting money for a specific storyteller job on an analytics team is a big step -- it will be interesting to see how many companies take it.
Excellent thoughts craig!! being a business / data analyst "from not a software development background" with story telling skills.. I used to think that it is a common skill and something "IT" or "Sales" people can easily learn.. but it isn't.. and it is not just about communication either Its all about having an imagination with experience and ability to interpret... just data or just some flashy dashboards last a few days.. the ability to extract a story out of patterns is just so freakin' rewarding.. i know what u say.. read it very late but all thumbs up man!
Thanks for the kudos, umerjamal -- I'm glad you liked the story. And good points on storytelling not being a common skill easily learned. That's easy (and somewhat self-serving) for me to say as someone who gets paid to write and edit stories, of course. But for BI and analytics purposes, I think it's a skill that companies have to look hard for -- not a case in which they can just point to someone and say, "You're a storyteller."
Yup. In fact, I've told my daughter, who's in high school, that she should consider taking statistics and economics as well as the creative writing she loves, because the people who can figure out how to tell a compelling story from data are so scarce.
Sage parental advice, Sharon. :-)