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Data storytelling in Power BI

I quickly put Business Intelligence to work providing users access to insights and trends. Reducing manual work and giving others 24/7 access to analysis was no doubt a win for our business.

However, it took time to realize that this approach of pushing out published data may be ideal for users familiar working with data, but fell short when helping non-data workers realize the full potential of BI for strategic planning and sales.

Nothing highlighted this more than introducing BI to our own external customers. Our initial goal was simply to automate a monthly purchase report, along with some profit KPIs. I was warned that our customers tend to be skeptical when asked to share their own production numbers needed to complete KPIs.

Initially our use of BI technology created curiosity but not insights; nor did it compel others to share beyond what was displayed in the initial report. Without the customers numbers, we weren’t able to calculate KPIs and show opportunity and trends. This one sided information proved to be just ‘nice to know’.

One day a sales manager informed me that the customer report seemed too complicated. As we talked, we concluded that we should dedicate one tab to illustrate the story of arriving at profitability. We designed a report that looked more like a flow chart from top to bottom. Next we added what-if parameters where we could show profit potential if we were able to meet different goal levels.

We took our new format back to our customers and shared our new tab. We’d review our original report page, then flip over to the new simplified tab. The response was stark. With this new tab, we were telling a short but meaningful profitability story. All of a sudden the concern wasn’t having to share numbers, but how quickly we could get their numbers in the tool and measure where they stood on profit.

We continued taking this new format out to other customers, then eventually to prospect customers. The response was predictable, “Wow, I had no idea!”. We also learned the value of allowing the customer time to process why they might fall short of the goal, and how to improve. Being a part of their own solution was a nice advantage.

Through this process we learned four key advantages that storytelling with BI had over traditional push (or paper) reporting. I call this the CO-OP path to insights:

  1. ‘C’onnecting the dots: A business intelligence report should be visually appealing and easy to follow. The ability to toggle between different scenarios and drill-in from one page is a great use of BI. Reviewing current insights and connecting effort to timely results is like watching a scoreboard change during the game vs. receiving a report card at the end of the year. Once we realize that our current actions are tied to current results, we experience a much higher level of buy-in.
  2. Collaboration reveals ‘O’pportunity: If I bring someone a spreadsheet, I typically need to spend time orienting them to ‘my’ report. This can be perceived as one sided, and often where I see barriers go up. However by exploring a report together side-by-side helps keep us on an even playing-field, keeps our conversation open, and improves our odds of learning something new together.
  3. Connecting leads to ‘O’wnership: As the data story unfolds we spend more time trying to connect and relate to what might happen next. As equal participants, we want to contribute, and by doing so, we take ownership of the insights, good or bad. Not only do we believe in the results, we feel like we belong to the process.
  4. Committing to make ‘P’rogress: By the end of our story, the goal is to be left with no doubt, no need to reinvent the information. We are not sold. If we identify something is falling short, we are ready and open to discussing how to act on change. To have the group finish the story with a commitment to act is where progress begins.

As a technical analyst, my focus has always been on the technical aspects of BI (Modeling and DAX), and less on the last mile of storytelling. There is tremendous value in ensuring that the reports I am producing are used in an effective manner.

Understanding this softer skillset can be the difference between ‘nice to know’ and ‘must have’ BI. No matter what your BI role is, a business developer, analyst, or end user, we all have a unique opportunity to not just look at data, but really engage with others and experience collaborative improvement.

As always, thanks for visiting! – Mark

One response to “Data storytelling in Power BI”

  1. Ken Kasterko Avatar
    Ken Kasterko

    I have been lucky to experience this data storytelling firsthand and use it as much as possible. Mark and his team have been developing dashboards for a major project that we working on in our company. The project is based on a couple of companywide goals that we have committed too. The dashboards are keeping score for our teams and that is really cool. It really gets exciting when you can tell a story about the progress with the dashboards not just give a bunch of numbers on a cool display. It has to mean something. Great job Mark.

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