Up until a few months ago, the words “flatten the curve” didn’t mean anything to people outside of the medical field. Now, it’s an often-repeated social media rallying cry to encourage people to practice social distancing and stay at home.
The question is, how do you communicate a complex idea like an epidemic curve to people with minimal understanding of data? It is no different to communicating a clear message - you tell a story.
For example, a podiatrist in the UK illustrated what could happen if the NHS was suddenly overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases. He used a bucket with a hole in the side to explain how a small amount of water escaping the side of the bucket was manageable, but when there was too much water in the bucket it was unable to hold the water and was overwhelmed. It’s a visual way of explaining what can be a complicated topic.
Data and analytics teams who are working on responses to the Covid-19 pandemic must communicate complex and often challenging analytical ideas to key stakeholders and to the public, who tend to respond emotionally rather than rationally. It is critical for these teams and those presenting data to use data storytelling techniques to identify, frame and communicate the Covid-19 narrative in a manner that is appropriate for each stakeholder group.
Humans are naturally inclined to make decisions based on emotions. In fact, subconscious pathways and emotional stimuli are many times faster to trigger decision-making than conscious cognitive processes.
The key is to appeal to both the heart and the mind of the audience. Communicate the critical data, but in a way that inspires trust, confidence and action.
Storytelling is a much more effective way to communicate a message than a presentation of just numbers and insights. By telling the story, data and analytics leaders can drive an action from the audience.
With that in mind, don’t skimp on the data, but rather use it to form the underlying viewpoint of the messaging. From there, the goal is to elicit the desired emotion from the audience to drive the data point home.
Stick to the key data points and don’t get lost in super-detailed complexities. Successful storytellers are very clear about the purpose of the communication and the audience they designed it for:
Alan D. Duncan is research vice-president at Gartner