When I was young(er) I was very petrified of public speaking.
You may have this fear too, and can relate to the overwhelming anxiety that used to hit me before I was due to speak (even just in front of a small school class). The annual public speaking project we had to do every year is something I dreaded. My stomach would feel sick. I’d sweat and have chills at the same time. I felt like I was going to pass out. This was even BEFORE I stood up to speak.
The usual tips of “just pretend the audience isn’t there” or “look at the back of the room” or “find a friend in the audience and speak to them” or even “imagine the audience naked” (hot, but not useful) didn’t work, at all.
You know what worked, and worked better than I could even imagine? A paradigm shift of how I thought about the audience.
I randomly read a tip somewhere (I wish I could remember where) that since public speaking is *such* a common fear, most of an audience is secretly (or not so secretly) in awe of a speaker who can stand up and present.
That ONE TIP shifted my whole mental approach to public speaking.
Instead of thinking about how nervous and anxious *I* was, I realized that I could think about how the *audience* was feeling, and draw strength (emotional and figurative) from them. There was a GREAT chance that every time I stood up in front of a group, a lot of them were thinking “Wow… I wish *I* could do that…”
The larger the group, the better. In larger groups, even more people would be thinking that, and I knowing that gave me confidence. I used that confident energy that THEY were giving me.
I fed off their energy, like an energy vampire:
That ONE realization TOTALLY changed the public speaking game for me. It wasn’t overnight, but each time I spoke in front of an audience I got a little more comfortable and sure of myself.
I had been approaching public speaking in a certain way (the way most people do) because that’s just how it was done. I was focusing on how *I* was feeling instead of what my *audience* was feeling.
This type of paradigm shift is what’s needed in the data dashboard world. Most data dashboard professionals approach dashboards in a certain way and with certain restrictions and preconceived notions about how you can (or can not) communicate data.
There are two kinds of dashboards
There are generally two kinds of dashboards, exploratory and narrative (sometimes called explanatory). Some will say there are more (such as operational, strategic, and analytical), but it’s just semantics. The audience may change with these, but not the overall functionality.
Exploratory dashboards are ones where data is explored, and are most often used by data analysts to suss out stories in the data. It’s like panning for gold in a river. You can spend all day sifting that (data) sand in a river bed and only get a couple nuggets of (insightful) gold.
Narrative dashboards are the ones where identified stories about the data are put on display. It’s like taking your nuggets of gold and polishing them up and putting them in a display case for people to ooh and ahh over.
In the data dashboard world, unfortunately, the consensus seems to be that dashboards are only appropriate for exploratory needs. This belief is what has resulted in dashboards with a ton of different metrics all showing up at once with many filters and slicers for users to struggle through.
Like these, which are highlighted on Microsoft’s “What is a Data Dashboard” webpage:
These are prime examples of exploratory dashboards, and let’s be frank, 99% of all dashboards are exploratory. If your dashboard only reveals data stories when your users click around and filter and slice data certain ways, it’s not narrative at all. The narrative is there, but you’re making THEM find that narrative. You are making THEM pan for gold nuggets. They do NOT have time for that.
The solution is narrative dashboards, or dashboards that KNOW what users are looking for and GIVES it to them. Whether that’s one short story or an epic novel with chapters and character development arcs and a 2nd act dilemma and a 3rd act climactic resolution.
The data dashboard world still operates with the assumption that dashboards can NOT tell stories, because it’s impossible to know what ALL your users may want to know AND that dashboard data is dynamic, so it’s impossible to tell a story with it.
Both of these assertions are false and lazy.
Your audience is more important than your data.
If you don’t know your users, that needs to be addressed. The first thing you need to know when designing a good effective dashboard product is the audience. NOT the data.
Let’s repeat that.
The first thing any dashboard developer should know is the AUDIENCE. Everything revolves around knowing what they NEED.
If the data doesn’t support those needs, maybe the dashboard shouldn’t be built at all.
Knowing your audience requires talking to them, or someone who knows them really well. What questions do THEY care about that the data can answer? How well do they know the data being funneled into the dashboard? What do they need to DO with the insights (stories) a dashboard can tell them?
Knowing these things allows us to build a dashboard that answers questions quickly. No hunting for nuggets of gold. No one has time to sit by a river sifting that sand.
If someone can’t open up a dashboard and find the answer they are looking for in a few seconds (or a complicated insight in less than a minute), it’s NOT a good dashboard.
My own personal goal when I build a dashboard is to get a viewer in and out of the tool as quickly as possible. If they are spending time searching for the gold nuggets they need, I’ve failed. They have their regular work to do, and they need quick insights to make a decision or move a process along. They can’t be sitting by a river all day looking for that gold.
Knowing what the people using your dashboards need from them is the first step. It’s the ONLY first step.
If you’re thinking that a dashboard can get unweildy and overly complicated if there are a lot of user groups that all need different things from a dashboard, you’re totally right.
If you’re trying to make a dashboard that answers the pressing questions of multiple disparate user groups, you are doomed to failure. Trying to please all of these groups will mean making compromises and you’ll end up with a dashboard that maybe everyone can use, but no one will be happy with.
At the very least, if you MUST have a dashboard with different users, create different pages for different groups… but ideally, you’ll want different dashboards for different user groups. They can all use the same data, but it’ll be displayed differently depending on the user group.
This user-focused approach ensures that dashboards and charts and every data reporting tool exists to answer user needs. This is even MORE important when we consider (and we should ALWAYS consider) different cultural, racial, and identity contexts. WE don’t know our users’ experiences. Only THEY know them. We have to LEARN from them.
It’s EASY to tell data stories with dynamic data.
On to the 2nd “problem” of narrative dashboards being impossible to build because the data feeding into them is dynamic and one can’t tell stories if the insights are changing.
Seriously, I just read a LinkedIn post from a data communication “expert” the other day that said one couldn’t tell stories with dashboards “because sometimes a metric may be increasing, and the next day it may be decreasing.”
This is, frankly, bulls–t.
Have these people used a computer program in the last decade? Applications built for data visualization (Power BI, Tableau, R, and more) and even those where data viz is icing on top (Excel, for instance) ALL have ways to look at what data is doing and tell a story with it, even when it’s different every day (or hour, or second).
We can literally get a dashboard to do calculations (simple or very complex) and spit out a narrative title/sentence/paragraph that accounts for what the data looks like AND can generate an entirely new title/sentence/paragraph the very next day/hour/minute. It’s not just narrative text either, but visual colors can change, graphics can change, everything can change and adapt to what the data is doing.
It’s not even hard. When I teach half-day workshops to people entirely brand new to Power BI and we have 10 minutes to fill at the end, I teach them the basics of dynamic story-telling..
In 10 minutes. To people absolutely brand new to the software.
It’s not only extremely possible to build narratives and story-telling into dashboards, but if dashboards DON’T do this (which most don’t), they probably aren’t used as much as they should be.
In summary, don’t let anyone tell you that a dashboard can’t be a narrative tool to communicate stories about data.
If someone is saying this, they just haven’t thought about data and communicating it with an end-user in mind enough.
They need a user-oriented paradigm shift.
They need to STOP thinking about THEIR experience with a dashboard and SHIFT to thinking about the experience of their USERS. A whole new world opens up with that paradigm shift.