It’s 2020, and the internet is abuzz with talk of the future of work. Most of the people “in the know” are talking about artificial intelligence (AI) and soft skills. The problem is that in order to know what we should focus on when it comes to training content, we need data. In fact, I’d say that the future of work is storytelling with data.

Good business decisions start with good data. A manager says his or her department has a training problem, and the first thing we do is gather data. How else would we know whether or not training can solve the problem? We know that whatever the solution is, it has to be aligned to business outcomes, budgets and target audiences. We know that data is necessary, but many of us are data-averse. We ask the right questions and receive good data, but do we know what to do with it or how to influence our business leaders with it?

The best thing we can do is learn to tell a compelling story, because if we do it well, we can say “no” to something that does not need training, receive additional tools and resources, and turn out top-notch and cost-effective products.

What do we need to know in order to obtain the data we need to tell our story? We need to be closer to the business and answer the following questions:

1. What Does the Business Need People to Do, and How Does It Measure These Activities?

Is the business using key performance indicators (KPIs), customer satisfaction scores, business outcome information, engagement or turnover data, or something else entirely? When standards exist, we know that training was successful if the KPI bar moved in a positive way.

We must ask questions related to the insights we are trying to gain so we can be sure that the information is tied to training. This data will enable us to tell an effective story.

2. What Questions Do We Need to Ask?

If we are the people collecting data or developing the questions, we must make sure that they are specific and have actionable answers. For example, instead of asking, “How can I help customer service representatives increase their customer satisfaction rates?”, we can ask, “What are the behaviors that enable our customer service representatives to answer calls quickly and effectively?”

Asking good questions helps create a roadmap that is easy to follow. The questions we ask will help us create a compelling data story.

3. Where Did the Data Come From?

Did we use surveys, data analytics provided by the team or teams, financial data, or program analytics? Once we know where the data came from, we need determine if it is relevant to the questions we asked. If not, we need to rethink our approach and the questions we ask.

Once we gather the information, we deliver it as a story by conveying it visually in a way that influences the audience to gain specific insights. This process should be second-nature to the instructional designers on our teams; after all, they tell training stories using visual information and infographics every day. But this skill is learnable if and when we understand the data.

We can approach this process without developing data anxiety by reframing our thinking to an instructional design growth mindset. Here are some tips:

Find the Narrative: Have a Beginning, a Middle and an End

In the Beginning

  • Consider the audience and their preferred style of communication (e.g., do they prefer bullet points or detailed descriptions?).
  • Use a “hook,” like talking about an “Aha!” moment and the interesting information that lies within the data.

In the Middle

  • Is the audience supposed to learn something? What do they already know? What are the facts, and how do they connect to each other?
  • Does the data answer a question?
  • Take the audience along on the journey of discovery.
  • Explain with visuals, and use a compelling voice to tell the story.
  • Tell the truth without bias; tell the audience what the data, says not what you wish it said.
  • Provide context, including comparisons to benchmarks or industry standards.

In the End

  • What should people learn or walk away with?
  • What question(s) does the story answer?

Design Well Using Simple Elements and as Few Slides as Possible

  • Use different representations of the data, like multiple clustering or confidence intervals.
  • Change scales and colors like your instructional designers do with training content.
  • Edit often; it doesn’t matter how pretty it is if it does not tell the right story.

At the end of the day, when we understand the data and what it means, we will no longer have data anxiety. We will have a story to tell that will improve our credibility and make an impact.