This article was co-authored by Christopher Chin
As data professionals, we often find ourselves immersed in a world of technical skills, focusing on programming languages, statistical analysis, and machine learning algorithms. In an industry that is expanding rapidly, it seems like there are always new and exciting technical skills to learn. While these skills are undoubtedly essential for success in our field, there is one key skill that often goes overlooked: communication. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of communication for data professionals and how developing this skill can propel your career to new heights.
Strong communication skills can help accelerate your career
In our pursuit of technical expertise, we tend to underestimate the significance of soft skills, particularly communication. Effective communication is crucial for several reasons:
- It enables us to understand the real problems stakeholders need to solve, rather than making assumptions. This is key to ensuring we are focusing on the highest impact work with our stakeholders.
- It ensures that meetings are not merely unproductive time sinks but become meaningful opportunities for collaboration and progress.
- It ensures that stakeholders actually understand how to use the products we develop and that the business takes appropriate action based on our insights.
Without effective communication, your work may get 90% of the way to driving impact, and not make it the last 10% to actually delivering the impact you’ve intended. With good communication, stakeholders will clearly see and understand the value you’re delivering. Good communication skills can also help you crystalize your own impact, share that effectively with your manager, and have clear, direct conversations about your advancement during performance reviews. Both of these things help elevate effectiveness in your role, which will help you move to the next level more quickly.
Talk about the "So What" not just the "What"
When communicating data insights or analysis, it is crucial to go beyond presenting the facts and figures. Instead, focus on the implications and actionable insights derived from the data. While we as technical professionals enjoy the granular, low-level of detail of our day-to-day work, business stakeholders expect to see how that work connects to the higher-level view of the business. It’s not enough to create features. You need to explain why those features matter to your audience and what’s in it for them. If they don’t understand why your features are important and what the benefits are, your work won’t get the recognition, support, funding, and adoption it deserves. By highlighting the "So What", in a way your stakeholders can understand and appreciate, you will bridge the gap between technical analysis and the stakeholders' decision-making process.
Tailor language and explanations for your audience
To effectively communicate with stakeholders, it is essential to understand their background, level of technical knowledge, and specific objectives. While jargon is appropriate for members of our own domain as a handy shorthand, it is inappropriate for stakeholders who don’t share our area of expertise. The best way to help stakeholders understand (especially technical) content is by connecting that new content to ideas and concepts they already know. For stakeholders from finance, focus on financial metrics and use financial analogies. For stakeholders from marketing, focus on marketing metrics and marketing analogies. If we do our due diligence to understand where our audience is coming from, we can provide more resonant and beneficial material for them.
Consistency and alignment is key
Communication is not a one-time event; it is an ongoing process. Establish regular channels of communication with stakeholders to provide updates, seek feedback, and clarify any misunderstandings. Many technical projects fail because requirements were unclear or the problem wasn’t correctly identified. As technical professionals, we are experts at designing solutions, but those solutions will have 0 value if they target the wrong problem. We are experts at creating products but those products will have 0 value if stakeholders don’t know how to use them. Inconsistent, sporadic communication and messy hand-offs are often the cause of dissatisfaction and poor product adoption. Clear, concise, and timely communication builds trust and ensures that your work aligns with stakeholder expectations. It’s the key to ensuring stakeholders not only want to use and can use what we build, but also want to work with us again in the future.
Keep visual media clear and simple
Visual media, such as slides and visualizations, can be powerful tools for conveying complex information. However, they can also be overwhelming if not designed thoughtfully. Keep your visual media clear, concise, and visually appealing. Use appropriate colors, fonts, and graphical elements to enhance understanding and make key points stand out.
With respect to slides, don’t treat them as notes for yourself to read from. Rather, treat them as visual support for the information you will later say. Minimize text, so that it’s readable within a few seconds and doesn’t take up attention space while you’re speaking. And maximize graphs, diagrams, and charts that the audience can instantly, visually understand at a glance.
Convey information with narratives, rather than lists of facts
Many technical presentations feel like information dumps. That’s due to the prevailing belief that the more information we give, the more successful we will be. But the reality is our audience doesn’t want to know everything. They just want to know enough to have their needs addressed. Success is therefore dependent upon making information engaging and relevant.
Humans are naturally drawn to stories. When communicating data insights, frame the information within a narrative that captivates your audience. By telling a story, you can create a connection, engage emotions, and make the data more memorable. Weave the insights into a cohesive narrative that guides stakeholders towards the desired outcome.
While technical skills are undoubtedly important for data professionals, the significance of communication should not be overlooked. By developing effective communication skills, you can ensure your work gets the recognition it deserves, gain influence at your organization and in the community, and ultimately accelerate your career growth. Remember to focus on the "So What", tailor language for your audience, communicate consistently to drive alignment, keep visual media clean and direct, and tell a compelling story. Embracing communication as a core skill will not only make you a more effective data professional, but is also an invaluable asset to your organization.
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About Christopher Chin
Christopher Chin transforms tech professionals into star speakers. Leveraging his 4+ years in the data storytelling, data science, and data visualization fields, he offers specialized communication and presentation coaching. Originally a composer and acoustic engineer, he now fuses the creativity, dynamism, and technical expertise from his multidisciplinary background to equip developers, analysts, managers, and executives with the tools and confidence to give killer presentations.