Let Your Data Tell A Story

Those of you who have followed my writing for a while know that as an interpretive planner, I’m a strong believer in evidence-based decision making. One of my challenges has always been in trying to communicate the importance of data—visitation patterns, visitor demographic information, analyses of program evaluations, and the like—in such a way that my client didn’t glaze over and start looking at their email halfway through my presentation. Last year, I found a data presentation format does it for me.

The Assertion-Evidence Presentation Model: Data With a Purpose

I came across this originally on academic Twitter, where a few professors had used it to revolutionize the way they do lectures. Essentially, rather than present a slide that a more or less meaningless title followed by obscure graphs or stats, they use that title space to make an assertion or thesis. The body of the slide is simply the evidence that proves or supports the assertion.

Here’s what it looks like. First, here are (yawn) statistics all by themselves.

Here is the same data, presented in the assertion – evidence format.

With this format, you stop presenting data for data’s sake. You don’t just show a stat: you make a clear assertion that helps you tell your story, and then you offer the data that supports it. Voilà: instant relevance.

And, when you start to string these assertions together into a thread, it allows you to create a narrative and make a greater case. Here’s what I mean.

  • Assertion: Hey client, you’re trying to accomplish X. It’s in your mission and your strategic plan.
    • Evidence: excerpt from strategic plan
  • Assertion: in order to accomplish X, you need to connect with the visitors that can actually help you get there. You’ve got four different segments of people coming to your site.
    • Evidence: demographic profiles
  • Assertion: two of your demographics have high potential for you. Look, they’re visiting at the right time.
    • Evidence: a graph, say, of visitation over time
  • Assertion: their interests coincide with what you offer
    • Evidence: vistor feedback stats
  • Assertion: they’re having trouble finding what they want in your region. You can fix that.
    • Evidence: competitive set of regional offers showing this niche unfilled
  • And so on. By presenting a series of assertions, we build our argument in a simple linear story form. By supporting our assertions with evidence, we increase credibility with each point we make.

Now try this format for your next powerpoint, and watch people nod their heads rather than nodding off.

It’s not just for powerpoint, either. Here’s what it looks like in a report. In this section, I am trying to make a case for audience diversification. I lead with the assertion, follow with the stats. (Click to enlarge.)

Data presented in interpretive plan

In the following report, I assert that interpreters could benefit from skills upgrades:

Excerpt data from interpretive plan

To tell a story with data, you need to have a few things in place.

  1. You need to know what your data are telling you. You need a point, an over-riding message, that will be relevant and useful to your listener. Good thing you’re an interpreter, right? We live for this stuff.
  2. Next comes the data, in useful small chunks, to build your argument point by point. You need assertions to make, and evidence to prove them.
  3. You need visuals to communicate your evidence at a glance. (Data visualization is a whole thing in its own right, but is very useful here.)
  4. You need text to weave the narrative all together.

But wait, this could work for interpretive programs too.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that an interpretive theme is essentially an assertion: “Hummingbirds live a life of extremes.” There’s an assertion for you, and it could function as a principal theme for a presentation. Then you’d follow with a series of sub-themes, also assertions.

  1. Hummingbird migration is a phenomenal show of physical endurance
    • Evidence: map
  2. Hummingbirds can nearly shut themselves down on a cold night.
    • Evidence: video
  3. Hummingbirds are far more aggressive than you’d ever expect for such a tiny thing
    • Evidence: diagram showing relative personal space around a hummingbird. Activity: people simulate that same personal space and typical hummingbird reaction.
  4. Hummingbird wingbeats are too fast to even see properly- but we’re going to try
    • Evidence: short walk to hummingbird feeder with binoculars

So much of what interpreters (and interpretive planners) do is simply try to make compelling assertions, and then try to back them up in interesting, captivating ways. I really hope this model helps you bring clarity to your work. Let me know in the comments how it sits with you.

Hey does this kind of stuff tickle your professional brain?

Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

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