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10 Tips for Briefing Your Boss With Data

Using data to brief your boss can be both fulfilling and frustrating.

Data is powerful and can visualize problems and solutions — sometimes better than words. But what happens when managers don’t know what kind of data they want? They just want to see something.

Which metrics are best to use, and how do you show you are doing a good job? How do you frame data and information in a way that is most effective? These are valid concerns that are top of mind for many employees, especially those in government.

Speaking at GovLoop’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit, Dave Uejio, Acting Chief Strategy Officer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, shared practical tips on using data to brief your boss.

“One of the mistakes people make is that the data steals the show, and it is left to tell its own story,” Uejio said. That shouldn’t be the case.

If you’re giving a data-driven briefing, put yourself in your boss’s place, he added. Generally speaking, leadership has limited time to focus on many things. Data is leadership’s best approximation of what is happening at the ground level, and they put a lot of faith in it.

Make the assumption that more often than not you have spent more time with the data than the leader. “You are taking a person who has to make an important decision — a decision you are not empower to make — with the data that they have not read through, with data that they may not be capable of analyzing, and then you’re setting them loose,” Uejio said.

“That means that we need to stack the deck toward communication,” he explained. “It is so important for us as analysts or people that work in subject matter areas that we take not just what is interesting about the analysis, but what is imperative about the information and frame that up in a narrative way — in a story. ”

Uejio shared these 10 things to remember when leading data-driven briefings:

  1. Storyboarding sets the stage for your talk. Don’t think about how wed you are to any one slide in your presentation. And don’t set out to simply design nice slides. Be a ruthless editor and make each one count.
  1. Tables provide a baseline comparison. There are lots of ways to visualize data beyond bar and column graphs. If your boss doesn’t know what they are looking for, show them the numbers or give them the impression you are showing them the numbers. In that case, tables can provide that insight.
  1. Pie charts have clear limits in conveying insights. They are terrible for showing proportionality or comparing different data sets. The only thing worse than one pie chart is two pie charts.
  1. Column and bar graphs convey greater depth of analysis. You should have clear axis labels on your graph, and they should be relevant to what you are trying to communicate. Include a title, don’t have hanging decimals, and provide a source and legend to add clarity.
  1. Waterfalls can demonstrate proportionality and magnitude. These are a combination of bar or chart graphs. They are useful for financial analysis, and they provide a clean way to tell consistent stories. Plus, they don’t waste a ton of real estate.
  1. Infographics can be framed to tell a story. It isn’t fair yet to assume everyone in analyst roles are graphic designers. Bosses don’t expect that. But there are plugins online that you can use to create infographics.
  1. False proportionality creates abstract perspectives. You have to balance ruthless storytelling with a baseline level of rigor and integrity.
  1. Y even have an axis? Bottom line: Don’t screw around with axes and tell misleading stories with data. Proportionality matters, and it’s on you to conduct analyses in a responsible way.
  1. Draw upon open source design communities to develop a unique palette. Color.adobe.com is an open source community of people who design palettes. Using color palettes gives your presentation a unified look and feel. Also, fonts set the tone for your assertions, so do what you can to differentiate your work. Whatever you do, don’t let work go out of your shop that is not pristine. You don’t want people to question the veracity of your report.
  1. Pictures directly invoke emotions. Check out Flickr and thenounproject.com for neat visuals.

It’s imperative that you learn the preference and style of the person you are briefing, even if you have to get that information second hand, Uejio said. “You are most likely to be successful if you hone in on your audience and structure it for their learning and decision making.”

This blog post is a recap of a session that took place at the recent Next Generation of Government Summit. Want to see more great insights that came out of NextGen? Head here.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

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Jean Mayne

Small, but in #9, you mean “veracity” of your report. Not “voracity.” Your report isn’t eating anything.