Demystifying People Analytics – Part 3: The power of storytelling

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This is the third part of a series by David Green, Global Director, People Analytics Solutions, IBM

In my previous post in the ‘Demystifying People Analytics’ series on the HRN Blog, I outlined 10 skills and capabilities organisations need to successfully adopt and thrive with people analytics.

One of these skills – storytelling, warrants further consideration, as this is a capability many analytics projects fall down upon. If you don’t tell the story in a compelling way that resonates with your audience then it is highly likely that no action will be taken That means all your hard work in collecting, cleaning and analysing data will be a waste of time. How utterly demoralising.

Even leading practitioners in this space have conceded that storytelling is the ‘last mile problem’ in people analytics. Prasad Setty, who as Vice-President of People Analytics and Compensation at Google oversees one of the most mature and well-developed people analytics operations on the planet, explains the challenge as thus:

“We spend an inordinate amount of time doing hardcore science and analytics, but how do we ensure that it’s memorable? That we can communicate better so that our messages resonate and stick?”

In a session at Google re:Work 2016, he sketched out three key components to consider when it comes to storytelling:

  • What do you want your audience to know?
  • How do you want your audience to feel?
  • What do you want your audience to do?

Setty believes that when it comes to analytics and science, we are pretty bad at all three.

So, let’s look at each in turn:

What do you want them to know?

Instead of advising their audience of what they should know from the analysis, analysts too often tell their audience what they did and get far too deep into the methodology, detail and the dreaded jargon. As an analyst, you may find the finite details of quantitative analysis fascinating but your audience most certainly will not. You will likely lose your audience very quickly if you fall into this trap. People analytics is supposed to be about solving business problems, so describe the problem to your audience, reveal what insights you’ve found, present your recommended actions and outline the cost of action versus inaction. Make it brief, make it snappy and above all make it compelling.

How do you want them to feel?

Don’t be afraid to use the power of emotion either. Too often, as Setty points out, practitioners don’t even think about emotion when they are communicating analytics. Stripping out the emotion makes your stories less memorable, and therefore less likely to be acted upon. Keep emotion in, use it to your advantage and pull at those heartstrings. If you don’t believe me, think back to the most memorable stories you’ve heard and the proudest moments in your life. I’d be surprised if emotion wasn’t a powerful component in each of these.

What do you want them to do?

Finally, think about what you want your audience to do. How can you compel them to act? What form of communication is the most likely to influence behaviour? Setty outlines how Google has experimented with different forms of communication and found that framing initiatives in a positive light is more likely to lead to action. In that respect focusing on the benefits of acting rather than not acting may be a more successful approach.

Witness the power of storytelling in Paris

Looking ahead to the HR Tech World Congress in Paris on 25-26 October, I’m expecting to hear many memorable stories from the stellar list of speakers Marc and the HRN team have lined up.

I’ll be moderating the Smart Data track (see agenda), which features a number of speakers that have mastered both people analytics and the science of storytelling to deliver a multitude of business benefits to their organisations.

Three stories I’m especially looking forward to introducing and hearing are:

  • Patrick Coolen, Head of HR Analytics at ABN AMRO – a regular presenter at HR Tech World, Patrick is one of the leading and most recognised people analytics practitioners in the world. He will present real cases and actual insights from work he and his team have undertaken at the bank. As a warm-up, I strongly recommend you read Patrick’s latest blog: The 10 Golden Rules of Analytics (Crowd version)
  • Esther Bongenaar and Vasileios Giagkoulas, both of Shell’s HR Analytics team – this promises to be a fascinating session on how people characteristics influence cyber security incidents. Using advanced analytics, Shell identified those characteristics that predict an incident, and consequently were able to develop a targeted awareness campaign to maximise effectiveness. Find out more by listening to Esther and Vasileios in conversation with John Sumser on HRExaminer Radio.
  • Dawn Klinghoffer, General Manager HR Business Insights at Microsoft – like Shell and ABN AMRO, Microsoft has a well-developed maturity in the practice of people analytics. Dawn will be talking about the emerging area of productivity metrics – and how Microsoft HR is correlating productivity with engagement and performance to influence their management strategy. Read up on Microsoft’s people analytics journey on the Valuing your Talent site.

Final thoughts

Just to be clear storytelling by itself will not suffice. You may end up with plenty of offers to regale audiences with after dinner speeches, but you are unlikely to get your audience to act on your story if your analysis is poor, the problem you are trying to solve has limited business impact and you lack a theory behind your data. However, storytelling is a critical component of people analytics. Take the time to understand your audience, be clear on what you want them to know, how you want them to feel and what you want them to do.

Reference material

For more on storytelling in people analytics, please refer to the excellent resources below:

About the author

David will be moderating the Smart Data track at the HR Tech World Congress in Paris and is a long-term member of the Blog Squad. He is a respected influencer, writer and speaker on people analytics and the future of work. He was recognised as Best Writer at the 2015 HR Tech Writers’ Awards, and was awarded one of ten LinkedIn Power Profiles for HR in January 2016.  David’s role as Global Director, People Analytics Solutions at IBM enables him to help clients apply an analytical, insight led and business outcome focused approach to their talent strategies and people decisions. Connect with David on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter and read his blogs on LinkedIn, ERE and HRN.

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