How do you use classic techniques to create fresh perspectives with big data?

An approximate answer to the right problem is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong problem.
— John Turkey

Today, thanks to my friend Ian Byrne of Pegras, I read that everyday its estimated humans are producing data equivalent to 10 million blu-ray discs. The world in general and business in particular is overflowing with data. Back in 1978, Samuel Coleridge Taylor wrote: water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Perhaps if he wrote this line today he might say: data, data everywhere and not a bit to persuade.

As the tsunami of data washes over us, we drown. While the tsunami of data is new, techniques for understanding data are old.

Persuading With Data

When using data to persuade people we need to understand our data, and how our audience understands our data. It is no good to simply present the data as facts and leave it to our audience to understand. We need to present the facts in a way that shows our audience clearly the insights the data can provide.

One quick way to help your audience is to show the low performers and show the high performers. In science we often compare to an average. In business, an average is interesting but not helpful because in business we want to increase performance. To increase performance, we want to fix the low performers and encourage the top performers. If we had time it would be good to work on those in the middle, but our priority must be the worst and the best. Faced with a spreadsheet of numbers, only a few are gifted enough to see the best and the worst fast.

Here's a before and after to show what you can do. This is a real example of data to be presented to a customer. Ask yourself: which one tells the story faster. Green is good news, red is bad news.

Original Table

Original Table

New Table

New Table

When I mention classic techniques, I have on my bookshelf a gem of a book written in 1975 by Andrew Ehrenberg. Written 40 years ago, this book could teach many business people using excel and PowerPoint a few lessons.

The key messages of his work:

  • Work hard to write simply and present figures to tell a story
  • Do not ask readers to work to extract meaning from the data

His ideas are based on how memory works: clear layout of simple tables, rounding of figures, placing figures to be compared in the same column.

He applied these ideas in business to create some breakthroughs in understanding buyer behaviour. Why not use his ideas to help people buy your ideas?

Come along to our breakfast at UTS and see what difference you can make with data.

For those of you interested in finding out how to use excel to analyse the data here is a technical tip.

Technical Tip
To see the best and the worst quickly in a list of numbers find: Top 25% and Bottom 25%.

How can you do this quickly?

Use the scary sounding function QUARTILE. Using this in a spreadsheet we type “=Quartile(Array, quartile)”. Array just means your data. Quartile is a number 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4. Enter 1 to find the bottom 25% of your data and enter 3 to find the top 25%. The video below shows how to do this.

Once you know what the top 25% and bottom 25% are, you can use a quick and dirty method or a sophisticated method.

The quick and dirty method

Sort your data from low to high, select all the data from minimum to bottom 25% (bottom quartile) make this red text because it’s bad news. Select the data from top 25% (upper quartile) to maximum and make this green because it’s good news. This might sound complicated, but it will take you no more than 2 minutes. You will be surprised at the insights you get looking at data this way and surprised how fast you get the insights.

The sophisticated method

Use conditional formatting. Find the highlight cells sections shown below and use those to highlight data from minimum to bottom 25% (bottom quartile) and the data from top 25% to maximum


Have a look at this video, you only need to watch the first 7 minutes.