Communication is a critical skill for analysts, and the communication skill that matters most is the ability to connect with executives. After all, the company's leaders are the ones who decide whether the business is getting value from analytics, and, ultimately, they determine the future and growth of the practice.
Unfortunately, communication with executives can be a struggle for many analysts. Much of what analysts do is meticulous, but many executives don't have the time to focus as much on the details. When talking with managers, however, many analysts have difficulty adjusting their content and style for effective communication.
Sound familiar? Here are five ways to create meaningful communication with the higher-ups.
1. Build trust
What's important is that you not only provide correct data but also ensure that the information you present is accurate and the conclusions you derive are sound.
Besides the obvious detailed Q&A 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 the data until you're certain it's correct.
One way is attempt to answer the same question two ways. Often, an analytics problem can be answered more than one way. By answering it in at least two ways, you can ensure that your conclusions are sound. The goal isn't to get identical answers, but, rather, to make sure that different methods lead to the same conclusion.
2. Balance speed and accuracy
In all honesty, balancing speed and accuracy can be challenging. Analysts typically struggle with their desire for 100% certainty and executives' need for a quick turnaround that produces less certainty... say, 80%.
Take the time to ensure confidence in the information you provide, but don't let the process turn into "analysis paralysis" and cripple you.
3. 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 a project might be, analysts need to be able to step back and explain it to someone who doesn't live and breathe analytics.
As you work through your presentation, consider the level of detail you're providing: is it truly necessary to tell the story? Could you further simplify?
You may also find it useful to practice explaining your findings to someone completely uninvolved. Think back to high school or college, when you needed to write an essay that could be read and understood by someone unfamiliar with the topic. Communicating your data to executives is no different. Consider using the Dad Test: Could you simplify your findings enough to explain them to your dad?
4. Use the right style
You need to understand your audience. Every executive is different. The way that you present to the CFO, who might want to see more of "the math" to trust your work, might be different from the way that you present to the vice-president of Sales.
Get to know whom you are presenting to and what style suits them. Though you need to focus on the big picture, be conscious of which executives might need to see a little more detail to feel comfortable relying on your analysis.
I once worked with an executive vice-president who had a habit of asking tangential questions. They were reasonable questions, but not always entirely relevant. However, I quickly learned to ask myself while preparing, "What would Fred ask?" I then had that answer ready for when he did inevitably ask the anticipated question.
That tactic had benefits. I was better prepared to answer questions, and I was able to gain trust. Moreover, because I was forced to think through other questions that might come up, I was better able to validate my analysis and my thinking.
On a practical note, this tactic also helped keep meetings on track. When I could answer questions, we didn't get sidetracked from the overall purpose of the meeting, and we didn't have to put discussions on hold until I could answer those additional questions.
5. Know your stuff
You can't overestimate the value of knowing your business and data inside and out. That doesn't mean you need to have every data point for your business memorized; "I'll get back to you on that" is sometimes a fine response, but you should always know the critical metrics.
That comes in handy not only in meetings (when those tangential questions come up) but also during chance encounters. If the company has recently launched a major initiative, and you bump into the CEO in the lunch room and she asks, "So, how's Project 'X' coming along?" you'll be doing yourself a huge favor if you can answer off the top of your head.
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For analytics to succeed in an organization, analysts need to be capable of speaking the language of executives. Even more so than building technical skills, your building communication skills will help drive your success, as well as your team's success.
A corporate culture that embraces analytics often does so from the top—from executives who value having data to better inform their decisions. However, if you're not working in that kind of culture, don't just throw your hands up and declare that nothing can be done.
By communicating more effectively, you can help drive the growth of an analytical culture from the ground up.