The Greatest Skill to Master as a Data Storyteller

When it comes to landing your message, remember your audience will realistically remember just one thing from any presentation. Make sure it’s the one they need to hear—the controlling idea—and watch the magic happen.
Icon image - illustration of a pirate map with a lightbulb shaped path to the treasure

The models were on point and the analysis was solid, yet the presentation fell flat. Leaders were underwhelmed and no action was taken.


In the debrief after the presentation, you hear, “I think your analysis was pretty good. The delivery just didn’t land with the leadership team. Perhaps we could look at further developing your presentation skills.”

[Cue the needle scratching on the record player.]

Okay, but hang on.

Before you go there, take another look at your deck. And I don’t mean the analysis. I mean the over-riding message you needed your audience to understand. It’s the heart of the matter—the one- or two-sentence answer or perspective that drove your content.

Can you find it?

If your answer is some version of a surprised “um…no,” you’ve discovered the real root of the issue, and why your message didn’t land with decision makers. And it has very little, if anything, to do with your presence as a presenter.

It’s because you didn’t present a clear point of view in your content.

In storytelling, it’s called the controlling idea. It’s the single greatest gap in aspiring data storytellers, and the single greatest skill to master. But before we get to how you can develop it, let’s take a look at why it’s such a common problem.

Great analytics versus great storytelling

There is a curious paradox at play when we talk about analytics and storytelling. What makes for good analysis makes for a very poor story, and what makes a good story makes for misleading analytics.

Good analysis starts at the beginning, exploring where the data takes us through the analytic process. Poor analytics starts at the end, letting a desired “answer” inform the “analytics.”

In contrast, good storytelling starts at the end, and the story is written with that outcome in mind. Poor storytelling starts with a beginning and meanders until it eventually comes to some sort of conclusion.

So can the two co-exist? Absolutely. But it takes a shift in mindset.

Having a story to tell

When we look to examples of great data storytellers, we can get trapped in the “stuff” that seems to make them great. It’s how we end up in conversations about analytic models, visualization strategies and presentation skills. And don’t get me wrong, those are all important things.

But as important as they are, they are only supporting roles in the main act of a great data storyteller. We need to shift our focus, because the most important thing a great data storyteller does has nothing to do with their snazzy ways of sharing the data or the analytic process.

The most important thing a great data storyteller brings to the table is a clear and relevant point of view on what the data is saying.

This is the controlling idea of a story, and it’s what gives it weight, tone and direction.

When we have a clear point of view—where the story needs to conclude—we have a different lens to assess how the data becomes a story.

  • Does the selected data have a demonstrated relevance to the controlling idea?
  • Are the visuals crafted to illustrate the point of view?
  • Is the narrative taking the audience on a journey to the end point?

This list illustrates a critical shift in how we think about presenting our data. Ensuring these elements are all addressed moves dull information into compelling conversation.

Finding your controlling idea

I think we can all agree every analytic presentation has a topic. “Of course,” I hear you saying. “That’s what the audience wants to talk about.”

True. But if we push that a little bit more, I think we can also agree that the topic is just the starting point. It’s a question looking for an answer. The audience is looking to you to apply your expertise and provide them with that answer. A data storyteller shares their position on the data—what’s important, why it matters, how it affects the business and what should be done—and uses the relevant data to prove their case.

That’s exactly what’s happening in the development of a controlling idea: Taking surface-level data and making it more compelling by stating a position and giving an audience the answer; they’re giving both a reason to care (believe) and a position to discuss.

Winning the competition for attention

Occasionally I have someone just shake their head and say, “My audience just doesn’t want to hear about the data.”

I feel you, my friend. I’ve witnessed that behaviour as well. But allow me to offer a slightly different take.

I don’t believe your audience isn’t interested or doesn’t understand. (Okay, they may not really understand, but that doesn’t have anything to do with their interest in solving a problem.)

It’s that the competition for their attention is high—and that competition gets more intense the further up you get in an organization. Plus, the percentage of senior leaders who have taken an analytic path through their career is relatively slim.

So, as much as we may want to share the whats and wherefores in the data, it’s distracting. Generally speaking, your decision makers are interested in engaging in a conversation about what the information means to them, and what they can do to affect the outcome. A controlling idea brings focus and resonance, and captures attention.

Still convinced it’s a presentation skill issue?

Listen, I am a huge supporter of building confidence as a presenter. It has endless benefits to your career and it’s a fantastic life skill in general.

But pretty much any presentation coach is going to tell you it’s really hard to give a great presentation if you don’t have something worth talking about. You need to frame your story, limit your scope and stay on message.

And if you think that sounds a lot like having a controlling idea—you’re absolutely right. You’ll have much more confidence in your delivery when you know where you’re going and have a solid story to tell.

So before you run to the nearest boardroom masterclass, revisit that deck and make sure the heart of your presentation is beating properly. You might be surprised to learn the problem with the presentation wasn’t rooted in your presentation skills at all.

“Three years later the and Audience Truths framework still drives every conversation I have with stakeholders.”

Feel like you could some help when it comes to developing controlling ideas? Give me a call. Your audiences will thank you.

Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter

At the base level, data storytelling isn’t that different from creative storytelling. You need a hook and a way to keep your audience engaged. Enter the “but, therefore” rule—a way to structure stories to make them more meaningful and memorable. …
We’re back for part two on this hotly contested topic. We say dashboards have their place in business, and in data storytelling. You just have to know what you’re looking for. …
Dashboards have their place in the world, but not all dashboards are created equal. It’s not just about presenting data; it’s also about providing focus. …