visual story
November 1, 2022

How Softer Skills are relevant for Data Leaders, Part 8: Visual Story

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our series focusing on the application of softer skills for data leaders, we now turn to using the ability to tell a visual story.

Regular readers will know that the purpose of this series has been to show how the softer skills that I train for analysts also apply to leaders. However, the ways these skills need to manifest are different. As our series to date had shown the focus is often more on creating the environment for such skills to flourish or removing barriers.

So, in this eighth post in the series, let’s turn our attention to the twin skills of data visualisation and storytelling. A combination that I summarise with the term Visual Story. This site has shared a number of posts on data visualisation skills & resources. I’ve also shared the subpersonality (a craftsperson) that analysts need at this stage. But what applies to leaders? Is the creation of visually engaging charts and stories something they should delegate to their teams?

Role model using visual stories

The most obvious opportunity for data leaders is to role model the standard that they require of their teams. With so many years of being exposed to poorly designed boring slides during business briefings, it can take some time for data leaders to achieve such a new normal. Still, as Nancy Duarte makes clear in her great book “Resonate” repetition helps embed new normals.

During my work with data leaders, I have noticed two aspects to this approach demonstrated by leaders who achieve such embedding of new higher standards. First, they take the time to consistently produce well-designed slides & graphs/charts. Using the principles from books like “Storytelling with Data” they consistently produce decluttered graphs with intentional use of colour to focus on the key messages. To support this & help adoption by their teams, they also ensure the production of style guides.

That latter point is important. Building on the credibility of consistently producing visually engaging content themselves. Data leaders do not want to fall into the pitfall of becoming a bottleneck. They should neither need to produce all visuals for the team nor review all team members’ graphics. A thorough data visualisation style guide can both educate the team on why their leader’s graphs are more effective and enable others to produce consistent high-quality output. I would recommend both exploring the Office of National Statistics (ONS in the UK) Data Viz Style Guide and the great resources curated by Jon Schwabish on this topic.

Improve your professional impact and be more succinct

The role modelling required by data leaders is not just the visual content but also the way it is communicated. This part is just as vital, which is one of the reasons that I’m delighted to see that Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s latest book is focussed on the presentation skills also needed.

Now, data leaders can pick from so many choices of courses and other resources to develop their presenting skills. But two supporting behaviours can be overlooked. First to maintain a consistently professional image and to practice being concise. The first of these covers multiple aspects. One is the consistency of graphics quality I recommended above. But this same standard should also be applied to other written & oral communications. How is your vocabulary? Do you need to develop your fluency & clarity when speaking to others? Plus, even in these days of mainly virtual meetings, appearance matters. Do not overlook personal grooming & dress smartly for the camera as well as in-person meetings. To improve your personal brand as a leader you want others to recognise professionalism whenever they see you or your content.

The second part is brevity. Data leaders would do well to develop their ability to say more in fewer words. Being more concise and to the point is normally more effective. One person who has campaigned on this more than others is Joe McCormack. His first book, “Brief: Make a bigger impact by saying less“, influenced many leaders to improve in this area. My experience is that improvements in this skill are especially relevant to data & analytics leaders who can always see more detail to share. I would recommend checking out the free resources that Joe shares on his Brief Lab site. One to start with might be the Brief Map as a framework for planning how you can structure your next communication to be more concise. Use that to plan the structure of your next visual story.

Find your own voice and develop your own gravitas

A common complaint from data leaders moving into more senior roles is the feedback they receive from above. Often their director or CEO (if they have reached the top table) will challenge them to have more gravitas. All too often this development challenge is unhelpfully vague and leaves the data leaders just feeling that their personality has been criticised. If this is a particular challenge for you, you may find the book “Own the room” and this podcast helpful. I would also encourage a focus on behaviours that work for them and still feel authentic.

I apologise for using the last word in the last paragraph. Why? Because it is overused these days. It can mean anything from an excuse for selfish behaviour to an expectation that people bare their souls at work. In this context, I just mean that to have gravitas a data leader does not need to be an extrovert. It can be just as effective to say less, listen well and develop a reputation for knowing what you are talking about when you do share. Couple that with being able to simplify the technical & be brief – and you may be on to a winning formula. A trick here is being intentional, consistent & relevant. Identify those senior leaders or business areas whom you want to impress.

Use effective stakeholder management & listening skills to learn what they are worried about, and their top challenges. Then attend the meetings which address such topics & start by listening to identify where data or analytics can help. Then share relevant ideas or challenges briefly & simply. The key to gravitas is to communicate with confidence & beyond your narrow fiefdom. Think at a level up (as we have suggested before). Remind yourself prior to the meeting that you have nothing to prove, you are the expert in the room. Then share a simple visual story whenever possible. Something which may not be the top priority or most impressive work from your team, but is very relevant for those you want to impress. Step by step you will build a reputation as someone who thinks more broadly helps others, communicates well & knows their stuff. That way lies gravitas.

How have you developed your visual story as a leader

I hope those thoughts from my experience mentoring data leaders have helped you. Which points rang true? Which are you going to put into action? It could be a good idea to prioritise one action and commit to completing that in the next two weeks.

Beyond that, I’d love to hear from other data or analytics leaders on this topic. What else has helped you? What has been your approach to improving the quality of your visual storytelling? How have you helped embed improved standards in your team? How have you grown your influence and role-modelled professional standards? I’m keen to share across our community as I find this skill especially can set some data leaders apart from others.