Data Persuasion: Basic Concepts and Definitions

Introduction

The older and wiser that I get, the more I realize that our framework of values and motivations is often not so much based on our own experiences and learnings but rather on effectiveness of persuasion of individuals who have taken their time and used their skills to instill our values and to create our motivations.

This might be a somewhat cynical view on the world but in order to see the evidence of my wisdom all you need to do is to look around and pay attention to the spoken, written, or subliminal content that surrounds you. Literally, just about anything around us is trying to persuade us to take a certain action or accept a certain belief.

Unfortunately, I am not smart and wise enough to tackle the topic of Persuasion overall, however, I am somewhat of an expert on how to use data to persuade your audience. Therefore, I decided that it could be useful if I put some of my thoughts about Data Persuasion on paper/videos and create a set of lectures about how to tell your story in a persuasive way using a business intelligence tool like Power BI or Excel.

Generally speaking, we have three avenues to present our data to our audience:

  1. Report
  2. Dashboard
  3. Study or Pitch

Let us examine all three and decide which of the three types has a stronger affinity with being persuasive.

Report

Report is a type of data presentation that is designed with a sole purpose to efficiently answer predetermined questions. So, if my question is “What is the weather like in Chicago right now”, a report could be put together to organize and present all of the relevant information to answer it.

Other characteristics of reports are the following:

  • Narrowly focused
  • Snapshot in time
  • One or few data sources
  • Detailed
  • Not interactive (usually)

Dashboard

Dashboard is a type of data presentation that is designed to consolidate a wide array of data sources, distill all available information into a set of Key Performance Indicators and provide a user with a way to quickly assess the health of his/her business and also highlight the area that requires immediate attention.

These are some of the common characteristics of a good dashboard:

  • Broadly focused (finance, HR, R&D, Sales and Market share, macroeconomic indicators)
  • Many data sources
  • High level
  • Very interactive (usually)

Pitch or Study

Pitch or Study is a type of data presentations that is from the very inception designed to elicit a desired reaction from the audience. (think of a commercial for a example)

Characteristics would usually include the following:

  • Built to persuade
  • Audience specific
  • Situational
  • Limited shelf life (or subtle temporal context)
  • Low interactivity – highly structured

Obviously, given my definitions, it is the Pitch or Study type of data presentation that has the biggest potential to be persuasive.

The Three I’s Postulate

Having thought about the most efficient and effective way to integrate my experience on data persuasion, I have decided to formulate a Three I’s Postulate of Data Persuasiveness that goes like this:

The data presentation is not inherently persuasive if it does not meet the following three requirements – the presentation has to be:

  • Intuitive
  • Insightful
  • Impelling

Intuitive

Assuming some familiarity that the intended audience has with the subject of the presentation, the presentation must not contradict with this intuition. with that in mind, the following questions are good to consider whether the presentation is intuitive:

  • Is it relevant?
  • Does it use credible data sources?
  • Does it employ applicable metrics?
  • Does it use appropriate lenses?

Insightful

Your data presentation must be intellectually stimulating, which means that they must:

  • Show relationship between cause and effect
  • Uncover unusual relationships between entities/metrics
  • Show contradiction with intuition
  • Highlight lack of data

Impelling

Your data presentation from its inception must have an objective of persuasion. Such objective can be either active or passive.

Active objective would typically do the following:

  • Call to Action ($$$, Time, Clicks, activity, …)
  • Show Potential (opportunity, areas of improvement, etc)

Passive objectives are drive to:

  • Invoke an emotional reaction (Shock, Feel Good, …)
  • Establish Credibility

The Two E’s for the Final Check

The Two E’s Final Check embody the following:

Ethical vs Manipulative

When we talk about Ethics of the data persuasiveness, not in the context of the source or quality of data or even the data persuasion objective. Instead, we will call the presentation unethical from the data persuasion perspective if it does not meet the following Musts criteria. The data presentation:

  • Must not rely on metrics with misleading or contextual definitions
  • Must not withhold insight that conflicts with or contradicts with the persuasion objective
  • Must have adequate levels of details and scale
  • Must provide relevant time range and context
  • Must compare local and global contexts when possible

Esthetics

Esthetics is often considered the most import feature of a presentation, although in reality, it is very audience specific. I argue that Esthetics are only this important with an audience that is either disinterested in the object of persuasion or generally unenlightened with respect to data storytelling acumen. Unfortunately, when Esthetics is important it is often the most important element of the pitch, where as an audience that is deeply vested in your topic might be happy to discount the colors and chart selection for the benefit of learning about the insight. However, even in the latter case, your presentation just meets the basic expectations of the audience including storytelling best practices, branding, layout design, etc.

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