Don't look up
January 12, 2022

Don’t Look Up, how it’s a lesson in data storytelling

By Tristan Mobbs

If you took the chance to enjoy many films over Christmas you may have caught a new one on Netflix “Don’t Look Up”. I certainly enjoyed the biting satire & analogies to Climate Change & COVID rules amongst other topics. Meryl Streep as a Trump parody was an unexpected delight.

So, I was delighted when I saw our newest guest blogger, Tristan Mobbs share lessons that he spotted in that film. I asked him to write a longer post on this topic for our blog. This post is the result.

Past readers may recall that Tristan is an Analyst at Connect Plus Services and blogs regularly as a “Data Translator”. Anyway, over to Tristan to share his lessons for fellow analysts from this highly enjoyable film…

Lessons for analysts from Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up is the latest Netflix blockbuster and social commentary on the global community and government’s lackadaisical reaction to climate change. But beneath all the hype and film critique of whether it’s any good or not, are there any lessons for technical experts?

The premise of the film is that an astronomy professor and astronomy student discover a comet that is certain to hit the Earth. Pretty standard disaster movie fare, but the challenge is no one really cares.

When they get to brief the President about their discovery, the first key lesson unfolds in an incredibly relatable scene:

President: tell me about the comet, you have 20 minutes

Professor: The comet came from the Oort cloud…

Professor: Using Gauss method of orbit determination…

Professor: Asteroid trig uncertainty

President: Whoah, Whoah, Whoah

Chief Of Staff: I’m soooo bored, just tell us what it is!

Don’t Look Up (2021) Netflix

Lessons for better data storytelling

Lesson 1: don’t fumble with notes and go into loads of jargon

While senior stakeholders are generally more polite, the feeling is the same. Using jargon, complex technical terms, and detailed specifics in explanations is an immediate off switch for anyone without that knowledge.

This is often hard to understand as a junior analyst. I could never understand the stakeholder that would groan at my detailed and complex presentations and ask; ‘so what does this actually mean?’.

The challenge for analysts is to develop that big picture, or at least uncover enough of it to understand the impact of their work. Rotating a small cog as fast as you can is great, but if it is pushing against a bigger cog the overall impact is going to be negative.

Lesson 2: Don’t sell too hard, bring people on the journey with you

What else did we learn? The student gives a great lesson in why being overly convinced that you are right can put other people off. When during a TV broadcast she screams at everyone for not taking the threat seriously.

This results in the threat being taken even less seriously and her personal brand taking a huge hit. She is deemed crazy and is no longer taken seriously or given any air time.

Building relationships and understanding others viewpoints and motivations is another key tool in ensuring analysis is understood.

Lesson 3: Focus on the people skills as much as the technical skills

It’s not all doom and gloom though, the professor enjoys a strong period as a guest on the news. Becoming well liked and being able to give clear and concise explanations. A huge transformation from the uncertain technically minded guy we first met.

A clear demonstration of the importance of developing people skills alongside the technical skills which are often the sole focus of budding analysts.

Lesson 4: You don’t know the full picture behind decisions made by senior leadership

The Professor also gets a job as chief scientific advisor, learning that his opinion will mostly be ignored due to overwhelming desires for other things (mostly cash from a tech billionaire).

This leads onto the question being posed, is it better to throw rocks from outside or to nudge gently from within. He is questioned by his two colleagues on this, and struggles to answer.

How we consider our values and what we are willing to compromise on for potential prestige titles is a whole discussion in itself. For now, realise that you don’t know the full picture behind why senior leadership are making the decisions that they are. It’s not an insult to your work, there’s just a bigger context.

Which lessons resonated with you from “Don’t look up”?

Overall what did I spot as potential lessons for analysts?

  1. Going into technical jargon bores and confuses stakeholders
  2. Don’t sell too hard, bring people on the journey with you
  3. People skills can be developed alongside technical skills, they need just as much attention and development.
  4. As an analyst you often don’t see the full picture behind decisions. There can be many reasons why a senior leader ignores your obvious analysis. Don’t take it personally if your brilliant analysis isn’t acted upon.

Thanks to Tristan for those lessons, many of which I’m sure resonate with other analysts. What about you? What rang true for you? If you watched this film, which other lessons for analysts did you spot?