Tag Archives: stories

Data Needs Stories

I was at an event last week at which the CIPD launched a piece of research called: Volunteering to learn : Employee development through community action

This piece of work is itself part of Learning to Work – a programme led by the CIPD to promote the role of employers in reducing youth unemployment. In my experience – the gap between school and work is a big one, and I think the role the CIPD is playing here is one of the most exciting and important things I’ve seen and experienced from the institute. I encourage you to take a look and if you’re not already supporting this good work – try to find a way to do so, please.

Back to the event. We heard from a number of people in business who are supporting this work and research through skills based volunteering programmes. I found a lot of what we heard was very heavy with data. Talk of the impact on, and measurement of, among other things:

  • Engagement scores
  • Wellbeing
  • Desire to remain at the company
  • Networking
  • Social and environmental awareness

And then we heard from Simon Collins. Simon works for Caterpillar and he too was there to share his experience. Simon spoke about the importance of skills based volunteering from several perspectives:

Firstly Simon was open about how it fits with his own career choice in talent development. He spoke briefly about his own experience as an unemployed post grad, ‘a scary time’, and he talked about how, as a parent, he observes a lack of career guidance and advice in the world of educationHe reflected on how the value of any advice given is often linked to the enthusiasm of the advisor.

Simon spoke to us about the vulnerability that often comes with being out of work, the vital rebuilding of confidence that skills based volunteering can have, and a lovely observation that this kind of volunteering is about helping people see they have something to offer. Simon sketched out a quick tale of someone he spent time with who felt that because he had no ‘work experience’, he therefore had no CV as such. In conversation it transpired that the person had a lead role in a project at University to develop, launch and sell a product. The project had exceeded its targets and Simon rightly suggested that this project was a great example of real work, and something relevant and useful to build on. Simon told his story in a much more compelling way than I am currently relaying it to you – and nevertheless the effect of his story has stayed with me. There were figures quoted by people for many of those data points I referred to earlier, and I can’t recall a single one.

In conversation with someone afterwards I was suggesting that we should hear more stories – fewer numbers. I was reminded by the person I was speaking with that the numbers help some people to make the case for volunteering and social responsibility in general. Ideally – I see these kind of activities sitting in the ‘right things for the right reason’ box, and yet I appreciate that businesses have to understand and allocate resources to meet needs.

So why am I writing this blog today? Two main reasons. First and foremost because I want to do my bit to highlight the excellent work the CIPD are leading on here. And second – to serve as a reminder that data needs stories. I’m 86.7% more convinced of that now than I was when I started writing this.

More Than a Number

I don’t know about you, but I’m often skeptical when businesses try to distil something important into a simple score.

‘Our employees are 42% engaged’ ‘Trust in our company is at 54%’ ‘Our net promoter index has risen to 7.6’

Shudder.

I get that it’s easy to throw out a stat or two, but they often lack any real context and more worryingly, they seem to be unquestioningly accepted as the ‘truth’. I am not convinced that you can reduce these things to a number, at least not in isolation. I want to hear and read the story behind the digits, I want to understand why 42%, not just 42%. To help illustrate my point, here’s a personal example for you.

I’ve recently returned from a great trip to Chicago where I headed to be at the annual Illinois SHRM conference. I’ve already written about the anticipation of the event here, and shared some of the Art for Work’s Sake experiences Joe Gerstandt and I helped to cocreate at a packed pre conference workshop.

The second day saw me presenting on collaboration. I was on the main stage at the Drury Lane theatre…Oakbrook, not London 🙂 As I was introduced, something quite unnerving happened. The main stage lights came on and all of a sudden I could not see the audience. Eye contact is very important to me when speaking – I get nervous in front of an audience and one of the ways I get past this is to engage directly with people, looking at someone as I am talking – trying to make direct contact, albeit briefly, with as many people as I can. These direct connections help me feel like I am talking in many one to one conversations – and my nerves ease. I tried to get past this blinding lack of contact and the only way I could achieve this, was by leaving the stage often, and walking around in the theatre so that I could see people and achieve the eye contact I needed. It puts me at ease, and so the audience seem to relax too. The talk unfolded and afterwards I got a lot of positive feedback from people in the room.

You often get scored after giving a talk at conferences, and this one is no exception. A couple of weeks after the conference I got some feedback. My scores for overall effectiveness look like this:

Excellent – 65%
Good – 26%
Poor – 8%

Those numbers represent a pretty good shape for me. People often ask me why I am happy to get some ‘poor’ ratings – and the fact of the matter is – I take risks when I present. I try to find thought provoking angles to share, and these are not designed to please everyone – otherwise I don’t think they would be particularly thought provoking. I often remind people at the start of a talk that this time is theirs, not mine. I am their guest and I’d rather they voted with their feet on realising that my content and style is not working for them, than sit and endure me. Anyway – those are the numbers, and they don’t really tell us that much…do they?

The written feedback is perhaps more useful? Here’s what it says:

  • Relevant & Engaging. Very Collaborative.
  • Not the most compelling speaker.
  • Maybe a smaller room for Doug who likes the more personal space. The audio was distracting as he kept moving into the audience.
  • Great to have interactive part, interesting, overall did great job.
  • Different venue to allow for collaborative experience theatre setting was awkward.
  • Engaging speaker – look forward to more.
  • Doug is fab & needs the space to interact with the crowd.
  • Low energy not sure of his point.
  • Speaker would be more effective/comfortable in smaller breakout sessions.
  • Common viewpoints & not engaging (head down) but had some points to ponder.

I’m so pleased that a few people took the time and trouble to write stuff down for me. These few lines are for me, much more helpful than the scores. As you can see – some people concurred with me that a space designed for a play, did not work (or at least suit me) as well as a more typical presentation setting. On reflection – I could have anticipated the stage light issue perhaps – but I responded as best I could in the moment and thanks to the feedbackers, I’m in better shape for next time.

So what? For me – this experience serves as a very useful reminder that while 65, 26 and 8 may have some worth – it’s the story behind the numbers that really adds value, and helps me get better. So the next time someone tells you their engagement score is up from 29 to 41, please don’t just take that at face value and move on. Ask them – why is this so, and why does this matter? We owe it to ourselves, and to those who would seek to convince us, to delve a little deeper, and get a little better.

Tell Your Own Story

Don’t ask other people to prepare your own story. If you want it to matter – do it yourself.

I’m following an interesting discussion on LinkedIn (yes – there are still a few of them happening amid the slew of self promotional spam) about presentations. It’s full of hints, tips and ideas. Stuff about keep it visual, tell stories, Prezi gets a mention as ‘an aid on the rapid journey to the vomitorium’ and a particularly smart bloke (thanks Alan Whitford) even suggests taking your guitar along and putting part of your story to music. And though it wasn’t me who suggested that, I accept that in replaying the idea I am guilty of the self promotion tactic I just derided. Ha!

I’d like to share a small part of the conversation that took place between Matthew Hudson and me. Matthew asks:

One thing that I am constantly struggling with is writing decks of slides for someone else, who I haven’t met, to present. Pass it up the line…..”he/she needs 5 slides that covers 2.1minutes on what the organisation aspires to over the next 20 years!!” 

You know the stuff!! Any tips?

To which I replied:

Hi Matthew – how about something like….do it yourself dude/dudess? I hate that crap too, just as I dislike writing stuff for other people. When I feel I have no option I quite like doing it in a style that is so obviously not theirs. If they are lazy enough to use it – then the lack of congruence often shines through. That person may be too arrogant to notice – but others are not.

In response, Matthew offers:

Thanks Doug. I’ll tell that to the minister as I leave! 🙂

And I added:

I guess it all depends on how badly the minister wants to tell a compelling story versus puke up a bunch of vague, disconnected hairballs of soulless crappy data.

Tell your own story.

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