Build Cathedrals Instead of Foundations — Three Ways to Raise the Sex Appeal of Your Data

Reliable business decisions combine institutional knowledge, data-backed insights, and a healthy shake of creativity. However, data-based proposals often fail to spur decision-makers into the desired action. Here are three ways to increase the odds of motivating positive data-backed change.

Have you ever presented a carefully researched and well-crafted proposal just to be given a pat on the head and ghosted when it comes to the execution of said research?

Well, Willard Brinton shares your frustrations.

The engineer and author wrote,


I find Brinton’s snark fascinating because these pearls of wisdom were written over a century ago in his landmark book Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts published in 1914.

Along with his words, he shared images that would feel right at home in any slide deck I’d prepare here in 2021.

Again, these meme-worthy images are over a century old. Hats off to Willard.

Beyond his revolutionary ability to write for the layperson and slay leadership with his wit, he voiced one of the most significant issues facing organizations seeking to make better decisions — the inability to enact change from data.

Despite the calls for data-backed decision-making, resources, and support — many companies aren’t getting the value they could from data science because efforts fall short in the last mile. The part when explaining the actual data to decision-makers.

Research conducted in 2017 on over 7,000 data scientists revealed the field’s most significant issues involved a lack of leader support, ambiguous questions, clarity in communicating results, and the research not being used by decision-makers. This is clearly frustrating for all involved because leadership wants these answers and is paying good money for data. And researchers know they have valuable insights to share but can’t bridge these gaps.

Therefore, it is no surprise that one of the most coveted roles in the modern workforce combines a high skill level in data analysis, communication, and consulting. This trifecta is extremely rare, and the Harvard Business Review even refers to this combination as “sexy” (so you know it’s hot).

So, how do you build the sex appeal of your slide decks to get traction?

The biggest obstacles to creating data-based decisions aren’t technical; they’re cultural. Merely adding a chart or some numbers into a slide deck isn’t necessarily adding value. Understanding the story the data is telling and telling that story well are much harder skills.

Further, making this collection and communication part of the organization’s culture — making it automatic, is a massive mindset shift presenting a unique challenge.

Here are three elements you can use to increase the odds of successfully motivating change through data:

  • Understand Your End Game
  • Bring in the Human Element
  • Layer Data to Craft Your Narrative

Understand Your End Game

This will sound obvious, but please bear with me:

Understanding what you want to achieve with your data is essential to achieving something with your data.

Ok, are you done rolling your eyes?

Have you ever found a piece of fascinating data and then felt lame when trying to explain its value? As my boss once said in polite frustration:

“Yeah, this is great, but what do you want me to do with it?”

So what is the point of your data?

The biggest reason that data fails to deliver on its potential is that the message is unclear, clouding the data’s true meaning.

Effectively communicating about information is a mixture of understanding:

  • The point you are trying to get across
  • The impact of your data on your organization
  • The reason your audience should care

Having fascinating data is just the raw materials; it’s your job to combine these materials into a tapestry of awesome.

Once you have your data translated into a solid business case, you need to get the decision-makers to care.

Bring in the Human Element

When you look at your data, you probably feel compelled to take some kind of action. Your goal is to transfer that same ants-in-your-pants feeling to the people who can create change. You do this by showing not just your data but the meaning of your data.

If the audience doesn’t know what that dramatic peak in a chart or massive percent increase means, you have failed. You need to help your audience connect the dots to process your research before they buy into it.

People don’t really care about the numbers. So don’t focus on the numbers; focus on what the numbers mean.

If you share data around customer service tickets, instead of merely talking about the number of tickets opened or the satisfaction rate, highlight a specific example.

For each point, bring it from the abstract to the human element. Data allows organizations to bring issues to light, solve problems, and improve processes. But make sure to keep in your mind and your audience’s mind the human connection behind each row of data.

Layer Data to Build a Stronger Story

Another way to motivate change is to layer data to highlight your story.

For example, here are two charts from The Guardian (warning: adult language):

The top chart asked readers to describe 2020 in one word:


Unsurprising to anyone living in this modern era, the words were somewhat negative…

This chart in itself is interesting, but when you contrast it with how the readers summarised ‘how you think 2021 will be in a single word’, the story gets more robust and nuanced:

Bringing one element of data may be interesting, but it’s incomplete.

Comparing and contrasting to a relevant point builds a compelling narrative.

By combining exciting data, clear visualizations, and a story — you are in a far stronger position to galvanize organizational action.

Quick Tips:

Here are some quick tips to help you step-up your data presentation game:

  • Remove the abstract and highlight one story — if possible, bringing in a photo
  • Assume executives have the attention span of a goldfish (9 seconds)
The internet is a true treasure trove
  • Agitate by highlighting what other teams or companies are doing (to increase the competitive drive in your favor)
  • Draw the audience’s attention to your conclusions using transition statements: “This data proves…”, “This chart illustrates…”, “These numbers show…”
  • Craft a snappy and memorable soundbite, for example, More people died of Covid-19 on December 10th than in the World Trade Towers attack.

The use of data will only increase, and success will come to the people and organizations that can successfully bridge the last mile to deliver data-back insights to those able to act on them.

Until then, in the illustrious words of Willard Brinton, data presenters are only providing foundations without the requested cathedrals.

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.