In this series of posts, I look at how you can communicate better within your team, with other departments, with executives and with external partners. My advice is based on what I’ve found successful in my own experience. Have other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me.
Communication with executives and stakeholders
This is something analysts often struggle with. (I’ve actually heard the words “and then I used a vlookup…” come out of an analyst’s mouth when talking to Vice President.) A lot of what we do is very detailed, but executives don’t care about the details. Ultimately, you won’t have any impact if you can’t communicate with executives. So how do you do this?
1. Build trust. Provide the right data. Tagging errors or analysis mistakes do (unfortunately) happen, but trust is hard to build, and easy to lose. Besides the obvious detailed QA of your work, be sure to step back and ask yourself, does this make sense? If your analytics spidey-sense is tingling, don’t share the data yet – make sure you validate it until you’re certain it’s correct.
One thing I found helpful is to try to answer the same question two different ways. Often there are different ways to go about answering an analytics problem. By trying it multiple ways, you’ll make sure that the two answers “jive” with each other. The goal isn’t to get identical answers, but just to make sure that different methods all lead you to the same place.
2. Focus on the big picture. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” No matter how complex, you need to be able to step back and explain to someone who doesn’t live and breathe analytics. As you work through your presentation, consider the detail you’re providing. Is it truly necessary to tell the story? Or could you further simplify?
It can also be useful to practice explaining your findings to someone completely uninvolved. Think back to high school and college, where your essay needed to be able to be read and understood by someone who had never heard of the topic. This is no different.
3. Use the right style. Every executive is different. You need to know who you are presenting to. The way that you present to your CFO, who might want to see more of “the math” for him to trust your work, might be different to the way that you might present to your VP of Sales. Know who you are presenting to, and what works for them. So while, yes, you do need to focus on the big picture, you also need to be conscious of which executives might need to see a little more detail to feel comfortable relying on your analysis.
I once worked with one EVP who had a habit of asking “tangent” questions. His questions were always reasonable, but not necessarily something I had planned on covering in the meeting. However, I quickly learned to ask myself while preparing, “What would [Fred] ask?” I then had that answer at the ready, for when he inevitably asked. This had a number of benefits. Obviously, it meant I was prepared to answer his questions, and that helped build his trust in me. It also forced me to think through possibly questions people might have, which helped me to validate my analysis and my thinking. But on a practical note, it also meant we kept meetings on track. When I could deal with his questions, have the answers quickly available and move on, we didn’t get sidetracked from the overall purpose of the meeting, or get put on hold until I could answer those additional questions.
4. Know your stuff. You can’t underestimate the value of knowing your business and data inside and out. This doesn’t mean you need to have every data point for your business memorized – it is okay to say, “I’ll get back to you on that” sometimes – but you should know the critical metrics inside and out. This comes in handy not only in meetings (when those tangent questions come up) but for chance encounters. If your company recently launched a major initiative and you bump into your CEO in the lunch room, you do yourself a huge favour when you can answer, “So, how’s Project X doing?” off the top of your head.
Other resources: As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, I don’t know everything. These are just a few tips, based on what has worked for me in the past. Recently, Kevin Hillstrom published 31 Tips for Communicating with Executives, which is well worth your time to read.