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Storytelling with your data

We examine the seven golden rules of HR analytics storytelling

It is universally acknowledged that humans connect with stories rather than facts, figures or spreadsheets. As the HR analytics debate rumbles on, the industry might be better advised to heed this truth rather than obsessing over its numeracy skills.

So we’ve taken inspiration from ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, and his seven golden rules of successful storytelling, to give you seven expert tips on getting storytelling with numbers right.

1. Do your research

Good storytelling starts with a comprehensive research phase where you gather as much data as possible about your chosen topic. You can then whittle it down to the numbers that will give your narrative a clear angle. This is about asking the right questions when you interrogate the data, rather than collecting masses of data just because you can.

“Ask yourself first ‘why am I doing these analytics?’” says Vanessa Landreneau, reward consultant at Hummingbird Consulting. “It’s about looking at information through the medium of numbers, standing back and questioning it to drive a better understanding.”

2. Plan your plot

Once you have your data you need to craft it into a compelling narrative. Just as you were told at school, your story should have a beginning, middle and end that take your ‘reader’ on a journey. Christian Cormack, head of HR analytics at AstraZeneca, advises: “Have a clear storyline underpinning your presentation. For example, make the title of each slide a bold statement that connects with the business narrative. Ensure your audience leaves the room with one or two tangible bits of information they can use, however simple. Show you understand the story’s nuances and detail.”

3. Bring the story to life through multimedia

“Data by itself is so dry,” says Jonathan Priestley, SVP of global marketing at touchscreen specialist MultiTaction. “Stop trying to ‘distribute information’ and focus on telling a story that is memorable by adding ‘hooks’ to the message.” A hook might be an arresting image, an amusing infographic, a related video, or recent newspaper headlines. Even better, says Priestley, make your story participative: “We call this collaborative analytics. We encourage people to write on our giant iPad ‘wall’ with infrared pens, adding their story to the collective one. This kind of learning has a 70% to 90% retention rate, compared to only 20% to 30% for simply seeing or hearing information”. Meanwhile, enlisting the help of a colleague who was formerly an artist was invaluable in producing insightful visuals for AstraZeneca’s Cormack.

4. Show don’t tell

“Use analytics to inform,not persuade,” says Maja Luckos, head of people analytics, UK at Capgemini. “With the insights that we present we don’t tell people what to do. Nobody likes that. We present the facts without putting our opinion in, which empowers our colleagues to make decisions themselves. We have answers, but we want them to come to conclusions on their own. It’s more powerful.”

5. Be a ruthless editor

Large amounts of data are overwhelming. So are technical terms and jargon, so cut them out. “Use simple language and clear data that everyone can understand,” says Luckos. “This is equally as powerful as sophisticated algorithms. You don’t have to be a data scientist to inspire action.”

6. Start with the human story, then bring the numbers in

When opening your analytics ‘story’ introduce real ‘characters’. For example, get your audience to imagine individual employees and add real quotes you’ve gathered from your research. “You need to personalise your story so people can identify with it,” says fintech firm FIS Global SVP of HR Isabel Naidoo. “Once you’ve done this you can kill them with the data and arm them with all the facts. Do your homework and know your data. Have the confidence that you understand [it] but add creativity too.”

7. Think about your audience

Different data will be of interest to different audiences, even around the same topic, so tailor your content accordingly. Sue Evans, head of HR and organisational development at Warwickshire County Council, drills the data down to team level when she presents it, to hit home the impact of the numbers. “If I’m talking about absence I’ll unpack the figures and be specific, saying something like ‘so that means in your team you have three people that are causing you a problem and costing you X’. It gives them context and hits them between the eyes, so they can’t avoid taking action.”