The week before Thanksgiving, I was home sick with the stomach flu (which is a horrible way to take time off), and I found myself binge watching The Great British Baking Show. This ended up being perfect, because I was able to spend hours looking at sweet, scrummy dessert after dessert without actually wanting to eat a single bite myself.
Once I was back upright at my desk again, working as I often do on reporting projects, I started realizing that creating amazing, compelling reporting is often like baking a cake: lots of options for ingredients, a well-crafted recipe, and (hopefully) out comes a satisfying and beautiful data analysis! Read on to see if you agree.
1. Decide what data you need after you define KPIs
Would you go to the grocery store and purchase all the available, possible cake ingredients, find somewhere at home to store them, and then pick a cake recipe? Of course not, it’s far too costly and wasteful.
And yet, I’ve worked with many marketers who insist that they need to set up a database, a table, a field, an integration — to pull in every piece of possible reporting data — just in case they get a request to report on it.
Spend time with your reporting stakeholders to gain agreement on the KPIs and metrics that make the most sense given your business, your targets, and your marketing tactics. Focus on metrics that describe outcomes, not activities, and are connected to revenue, profit, and customer growth. If you’re looking for a good starter list of KPIs, check out this article on key metrics for evaluating your marketing efforts.
2. Help your readers zero in on the data
As chefs often say, “You eat first with your eyes.” Food plating and presentation is as important as taste; perhaps more so, because if the appearance is off-putting, you may decide not to taste it at all.
The same can be said for your visualizations. Edward Tufte coined the term “chartjunk” to describe superfluous and often distracting elements — such as incongruent colors, shading, 3-D, gridlines, gimmicky fonts, and images — applied to visualizations.
No one is testing you on how many Excel formatting features you can include in a single chart. Look critically at your visualizations and ask the following questions:
- Does the data itself stand out enough, or do the chart elements muddy it? What’s my Data-Ink ratio?
- What elements can I remove or scale back, yet retain clarity?
- Do each of my visualizations follow my template?
Take a look at this quick article explaining how to eliminate the noise that Excel adds by default to your visualizations.
3. You’ve got your numbers, now what?
At the start of each challenge, the bakers describe their ingredients, their plan of action, and their expected outcome — effectively their storyline. But things don’t always go as planned for the competitors; when issues arise, the best bakers pivot quickly to meet their goals within the time limit of the challenge.
I often ask clients to provide a sample monthly or quarterly executive reporting deck to understand their current state, and far too frequently what I receive is slide after slide of just visualizations. It’s clear that the author has invested a great deal of time in the data, but almost nothing in the actual story behind it; in fact, they’ve left that work entirely to the reader.
If a competitor tells English celebrity chef Paul Hollywood that they’re going to “wing it,” they’re already one step closer to failure — because they have no plan at all. At minimum, you should be providing commentary to answer the following questions:
- What are our goals and targets? What’s our plan for achieving those targets?
- Are we achieving or on track to achieve our targets? Why or why not?
- What should we change to ensure we do achieve our goals, or, how can we take advantage of the success we’ve seen?
- What results do we anticipate from those actions?
Answering that last question really separates the cake decorators from the pastry chefs. If you can objectively describe the expected impact of your plan of action to management, there’s an excellent chance you’ll gain approval.
4. Practice makes perfect
In each episode, two of the three challenges can be designed and practiced at home — basically an open book test. The simple fact of the matter is that the more you practice, the better you’ll become. Many marketers quietly dread reporting exercises. They’re time-consuming, error-prone, and the outcome is often unexpected, especially when they don’t take ownership of the storyline.
Don’t wait until your next quarterly reporting is due to start crafting your narrative. Good data alone does not make a good story. Get an early preview into your results, think about your audience’s needs and goals, and start formulating your key messages, which your visualizations will ultimately be used to support.
In fact, you don’t even need to practice with your own data! There are several visualization “makeover” blogs that can provide inspiration and even competition, such as Storytelling with Data’s monthly challenge, Makeover Monday, and Depict Data Studio.
So, thoughtfully craft your reporting recipe, gather all the right ingredients, and present your findings in an appetizing and digestible way so that others will want to consume it.
And if baking’s not your thing, or you’re short on time, sometimes it just makes sense to hire a caterer. Here at DemandGen, we offer a variety of reporting and analytics services that help marketers prove their contributions to the bottom line.
And one last tip: next time you present your reporting analysis, perhaps bring a sweet treat along for your audience. As Julia Child once said, “A party without cake is just a meeting.”
Gaea Connary, Consultant at DemandGen, focuses on helping organizations strengthen their lead management processes, lead scoring, nurturing strategy, and reporting and analysis to get the best return on their technology investment and meet their marketing objectives.