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PowerPoint Doesn't Meet Data Science Needs

There’s a good chance you have one or more simplehuman products in your house. We pride ourselves on creating durable tools for efficient living. This emphasis on efficiency translates over to my position as Director of Data Operations, where I uncover insights about consumer behavior to help improve sales, marketing, and our overall product offerings. To facilitate these improvements, though, I need to communicate my findings internally. At simplehuman and throughout the course of my career, I’ve come to the realization that standard PowerPoint presentations aren't the answer.

To illustrate my point, let’s turn to Star Wars. Do you think the scene where Vader told a shocked Luke Skywalker “I am your father” would have been anywhere near as powerful had it been accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation? Of course not. PowerPoints tend to flatten ideas and can be quite dull to look at.

Within the scope of my role, I am frequently tasked with analyzing data as it flows through numerous systems. In addition to sales, marketing, and consumer insights data, I frequently review and report on e-commerce activity related to simplehuman.com, our ERP, and warehouse management systems. In some cases, my audience is fairly nontechnical, so it’s important that I convey my findings in a way that is clearly understandable and encourages discussion.

For example, I was recently asked to create a brief presentation about a problem (a relatively minor one, but details are redacted for obvious reasons) that occurred in one of our systems and took some time to identify and fix. The problem reoccurred over two months later and it took a fair amount of research to create a permanent fix and clean up some resulting data issues. Had I used a PowerPoint approach, I likely would have created a dense slide that looks like this:


While this contains the essential information about what happened, it’s dull and therefore easy for the audience to tune out. I knew that using that approach would make it much harder to explain the problem, its timeline, and its final resolution to my audience. Therefore, I decided using a line chart would be a much more effective way to communicate what happened:

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Superimposing annotations on the time series allowed me to communicate the chronology of events and intervals between them in an intuitive way. The slide served to reinforce and clarify my voiceover, which was similar to the sub-bullets in my hypothetical slide.

While this is a fairly simple example, I was praised by a couple of members of my audience (one technical and one non-technical) for presenting this information in an engaging way that was easy for them to grasp.

Another example comes from my time at MarketShare as director of data strategy. I was tasked with collecting numerous datasets for inclusion in a complex marketing mix model. To ensure success of the project and its underlying model, I had to convince a fairly nontechnical client that I needed data as a weekly time series, not the monthly format they had been consistently delivering. After several failed email pleas, I visited the client in person and gave a presentation that included a slide similar to the following:

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In this slide, I created tables to show matches and mismatches of time granularity, color cues to indicate to reinforce which format was problematic vs. ideal, and diagonal vs. straight arrows to imply chaos vs. order. This presentation helped convince the client to resubmit the majority of files in a weekly format, which resulted in much easier data processing and a dramatic improvement in the final model.

Even though presentation and communication are frequently labeled as soft skills, they are just as important as the hard skills used in data science. Brilliant data analysis will be of very limited use if the resulting insights cannot be communicated effectively to your target audience. In many cases, you and your target audience will have different experiences and perspectives, so you should take the time to imagine how you would want this information presented if you were in their shoes. Don’t hide behind boring PowerPoint slides. If you focus on communicating in a clear and compelling way, you’ll be much more likely to achieve your objectives.

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