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What is wrong with the below slide*?

The slide from hell

Everything right?!

Let’s start with the most glaring issue – it has no ‘message’ on top. A neutral header does nothing to tell the audience what the slide is actually saying.

Now, in a previous post, we have seen the importance of crafting clear, surprising messages from your data. Messages that get the audience’s attention using the principle of norm and variance.

When you attempt to do this, however, you may get stuck at the next hurdle: choosing the right adjectives.

Adjectives? Do you mean like ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’? Well… yes, but slightly more nuanced. Consider the following messages – especially the italicised adjectives:

  • Sales have shown whopping growth (whopping – too dramatic)
  • Our performance has been super impressive (too informal for a corporate presentation)
  • Attrition rates have been bad (Really? ‘Bad’? That’s really nuanced…)

The issue here is that we tend to gravitate between two extremes when it comes to choosing such adjectives:

  • We use a small set of ‘standard/banal’ words to describe these metrics (e.g. revenue went up, NPS is the same as last quarter, profitability is lower than competitors etc.), or
  • We go for dramatic words, that may work in informal settings or in news headlines (tremendous, super-high, the pits etc.), but aren’t appropriate in a formal corporate setting^.

We are essentially using a very limited vocabulary for a very wide range of performance phenomena. Wouldn’t it be good to have a readymade list of potential words, to choose from, to describe various performance scenarios?

A bit like that scene in The Matrix, when Keanu Reeves says – “Guns, lots of guns” and immediately he’s in this cavernous room filled from floor to ceiling with every kind of firearm imaginable.

(I know – even I wanted to watch that scene again, after writing this. Here you go:

One of many iconic scenes from The Matrix (Produced by Joel Silver)

What. A. Swag.)

Imagine saying “Words, lots of words”, and having a rich collection of words to choose from…

The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet

Presenting the ‘Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet’ – a ready reference guide for you to choose from, based on two factors inherent in your message from the data:

  1. The type of comparison factor in your message
  2. The intensity of the performance difference (low, medium, high)

What do I mean by comparison factor? Well, there are three basic types of comparisons we can do with data – over time, across other items (competition, internal teams etc.) and as a component (share) of something.

Here’s a quick overview.

Three most common comparison parameters

So then, based on the comparison factor and the intensity of the change, you can choose from the following set of words, to describe your key finding:

The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet (by Ravishankar Iyer)

Now, a couple of disclaimers for the above:

  • The comparison factors can be more complex (you could be looking at more than one factor – such as increasing share over time). Use your judgement in such cases.
  • Also, this is clearly not a comprehensive list of words – feel free to keep adding to the list.

If you’d like a PDF copy of this to print and stick on your soft-board, I’m happy to share the same. Please drop me an email at ravishankar@storyrules.in.

Happy describing!

*****

* Incidentally this is a slide from my first presentation during my consulting years. Let’s just say I’m happy I started rock-bottom – the only way was up.

^ A disclaimer – formal corporate setting doesn’t mean the use of stifling jargon and global corporate-speak such as ‘synergistic’, ‘value-addition’ and ‘paradigm-shift’. Plain, informal speak is great, especially in internal conversations. But often with clients, one needs to maintain decorum of speech. It’s a fine balance!

Featured image by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

Writer’s block

Do you sometimes sit to write an email or an appraisal note and struggle to find the right words? You aren’t alone – all of us face some form or the other of the writer’s block.

On the other hand, sometimes you may find yourself writing in full flow, only to discover later that the words are all over the place and are not conveying the intended message well.

This post will help you with that most basic task in creating a data-story: choosing the right words.

Building blocks

Think of a data-story as a completed house. Components such as walls, ceilings, windows, doors etc. are the messages (key statements/sections) that form your story. These ‘messages’ in turn are made up of individual bricks, beams and frames – the words that make up your messages.

Choosing the right words therefore becomes a critical aspect of telling a clear, persuasive story that stands on its own. Unfortunately people don’t usually spend adequate time on this aspect. Why? I reckon there are two reasons:

  1. They believe that obsessing over word choice just to express a thought seems (worryingly) like veering into poetry and literature territory. Definitely not a zone where engineer-CA-MBA types are comfortable!
  2. People get put off by writers who tend to show off their vocabulary (*cough*Shashi Tharoor*cough*).

On point 1 above, don’t worry – you don’t need to read Shakespeare or Hemingway to improve your articulation (although it would help!). There are far simpler ways to write better, which we’ll discuss in this post.

Point #2 is valid, and gives rise to the adage: “Write to express, not to impress”. Tips like ‘Avoid complex words, use simple words’ make sense, since people shouldn’t have to use a dictionary to understand what you’re writing. However, having said that, I find many people going to the other extreme – i.e. they use banal, generic words that hardly do justice to their rich, nuanced thoughts.

And ultimately isn’t that the job of words – to act as accurate, simple and elegant representatives of our (myriad, sometimes complex and muddled) thoughts and feelings?

Let’s look at four simple tips to make that happen. We will look for words which have the following characteristics:

  1. Accuracy
  2. Variety
  3. (The right) Tone
  4. Brevity

1. Accuracy

Imagine you gifted your technophobe aunt a OnePlus 5T phone. After a couple of weeks you meet her and realise that she’s only using it for three functions – calls, music and Whatsapp (those ‘Good Morning’ forwards have gotten more intense recently). You think to yourself “Man, such a waste of that Snapdragon 835 processor with 8GB RAM…”

Guess what – you too may be significantly underusing a top-of-the-line technology you’re lucky to be endowed with: the English language.

The secret superpower that English enjoys? Lots of near-synonyms to express nuanced differences in thoughts or feelings. 1 For example, take this statement from CricInfo, describing Virat KohliIt’s also passion that defines Kohli’s emotional, effervescent and at times firecracker character.” So many nuanced, accurate words that evocatively bring out different facets of his personality.

So the next time you are describing something, please avoid banal, generic words like ‘nice’, ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘amazing’ . Instead use that thesaurus and look for more appropriate, accurate words that best reflects your thoughts. Here are a few before-and-after examples:

2. Variety

Variety is a close cousin of accuracy. Sometimes word ‘X’ may be the most accurate one for a given context, but may need to be repeated. In such cases too, the thesaurus is a great tool to identify synonyms for variety. Here are a few examples:

Thesaurus reco: I strongly recommend WordWeb, a user-friendly thesaurus with a staggering collection of words, some very smart suggestions and keyboard shortcuts to boot.2

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A small digression: Using CricInfo commentary as an example of accuracy and variety  

I find a lot of storytelling inspiration at Cricinfo.com (yup, that’s the only reason why I spend hours on the site). For instance, think of the person providing ball-by-ball commentary. In a one-dayer, with up to 600 balls during the day, he/she can’t be writing “Hit the ball” for every shot. Just like players like Sachin and Kohli have a variety of shots in their playbook, Cricinfo commentators have a massive arsenal of words in theirs. Here’s a visual depiction of their eloquent prowess (along-with some, ahem, comparisons to showcase the quality difference):

It is incredible how they have mined the English language for all its worth and ensured that they have a wide variety of accurate options to choose from.

The below ‘Eloquence Scale’ summarises the above two tips – aim for the centre:

(For those interested, the Friends clip with Joey’s adoption letter)!

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The above two tips were about choosing specific words. The next two are at a higher level – about writing style in general.

3. Tone

We understand tone intuitively when talking (“Don’t talk to me in that tone, young lady“; or “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it“). In writing however, we sometimes get the tone wrong (e.g. informal instead of formal) or inconsistent (multiple tones in the same document). Here are a few examples:

 

4. Brevity

The final tip is self-explanatory: less is more. We often use more words than needed to explain something. The best way to remedy that: editing.

Our first drafts of any communication are usually sub-optimal.3 It needs the process of editing, rewriting and polishing to make it sharper and clearer. Here are a few examples:

Summing up

Writing – especially choosing the right words – can seem daunting to people who don’t fancy themselves as natural communicators. Hopefully these tips – aiming for Accuracy, Variety, Tone and Brevity – will help make the process easier and more effective.

*****

Image credits

Featured image: Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Children’s Book: By Luke Jones ; from Flickr

Ravi Shastri: By http://www.bollywoodhungama.com/ [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Shashi Tharoor: By Chatham House [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes: