I recently saw a former colleague of mine for drinks. After catching up, we somehow came upon the mutual frustration of reports.

Death by piles of data. How we want to re-create the Office Space fax machine scene every time we open Excel. The hours of life we will never get back that it takes to generate a single report.

At this point, we ordered another round.

As marketers, we’ve seen our share of reports. And we’ve had to pull our share too. What we discovered we resented more than anything was how we received reports from colleagues.

We’ve both received forwarded emails with text reading, “FYI.”

Nothing else. No insight. No two cents. Nothing. It leaves us to dig into the data with no direction. It’s like telling someone to go a museum and not telling them why—they have no clue why they’re going or what to see.

And I doubt we’re alone in feeling this way. Translating data into meaningful business language is its own art form. The power of telling the right story, at the right time, to the right person is the ultimate masterpiece. It’s an essential soft skill for anyone, not just higher education professionals, to thrive.

Here’s how to create the right story for your data.

Communicate to your audience. Who is this message going to? Depending on the audience, you will need to tweak your data and story accordingly. Don’t forward the same report in a mass email; instead, create consensus by customizing the message. For example, if you work in Advancement, before you send out the report, ask yourself “What does the Director of Annual Giving care about?” “What does the Director of Chapters need to know?” “What about the Marketing team?”

Look at the report and ask: What’s in it for them?

Make the message compelling. As we say in marketing, what’s the hook? What do you want people to do after hearing your story? If nothing else, what do they need to know? By identifying your audience and what’s in it for them, add elements that will resonate. Craft a message that focuses on the best structure and form for each audience member.

Visualize with relatable details. If the occasion doesn’t call for PowerPoint, you can still help your audience visualize by providing specific details to get them to buy-in. What’s a metaphor or anecdote to make the data memorable? Does the Director of Annual Giving love football? Throw in a good old pigskin reference to get their attention. (For example, if you ever want to win me over, mention baseball. I’m listening…).

Visualize the data. When possible, use quantifiable data. People look at images and charts and instantly understand what you are trying to convey. A pie chart about sales? Ok, wow. 2/3 of our sales are baseball hats. Present disappointing numbers by including cliff edge? Yes, we need to be cautious with our numbers the way they are.

Time your message. I could write an entire blog about bad timing! As a marketer, I know better than to launch a campaign during the Super Bowl: no one cares about anything else but the big game. In the same way, I wouldn’t run into my boss’s office and scream “We did this wrong!” as she’s leaving to go on vacation. While this may be obvious to most people, time the where, when, and how you tell your story. Rather than saying we missed an opportunity here, you can use data to show opportunity about the next event, email, etc. You can’t change the past, and you can always learn from it.

Tell Your Own Story

The right data and the right time to the right audience matters.

Allow me to illustrate:

You recently held an event at your institution. You created a registration page on your website and now have data that shows not only who registered and from where, but who visited the page and ultimately decided not the register. You are meeting with the Director of Marketing, the Director of Chapters, and the Director of Annual Giving for a debrief meeting (timing the message perfectly!).

Here’s what you know:

  • 200 people came to the event
  • 150 were prior donors, 50 have never made a donation
  • Of the 50 who have never made a donation, 25 visited the giving page and didn’t complete the process
  • At the event, there was a prominent prospect who hasn’t donated and could give a $1M gift
  • You held the event in Boston and the event registration page had website traffic from the following areas:
    • Greater Boston 50%
    • Greater Providence 10%
    • Greater New York City 5%
    • Greater Philadelphia 35%

What stories and insights can you share?

  • Chapters: There was a lot of website traffic from the Philadelphia area that visited the event page. Obviously, it’s hard for them to make the trip up to Boston. Maybe we should have a similar event for our Philadelphia alumni?
  • Annual Giving: There were 50 people who haven’t made a gift yet at the event. Of those 50, 25 visited the online giving page, only to abandon the donation at the end. I have created a spreadsheet for a fundraiser to follow-up. Also, I know our goal is to get $2M this month. John Smith attended and has a large capacity. He’s been to this event, plus the Technology Council event and the football game last month. Let’s capitalize on his engagement and get a big score for our team!
  • Marketing: Since 50 people came to the event that didn’t make a gift, I think we should try to encourage them to make a gift at the event. I know we typically use a name tag ribbon to highlight donors at events, but what if we gave donors a tangible item, like a water bottle? I know I go nuts when someone has something that I don’t. I immediately want to figure out how to get one. Maybe that will drive gifts during the event?

The data is the same: 200 people came to the event, 50 didn’t make a gift, and a bunch of people from Philly wanted to come, but ultimately didn’t want to travel. The only difference is how you are sharing the story.

By learning how to “communicate up” to your audience stakeholders, you are helping them operationalize the insights you and your team are generating.

One last thing: That story about meeting my friend and sharing frustrations isn’t true. Not one word of it. But, it allowed you (the reader) to buy into whatever topic I was writing about and easily make a connection. You pictured the famous scene of taking a baseball bat to a fax machine and felt the assumed joy of taking a bat to an Excel file. You felt the pit in your stomach because the words “hours of your life that you won’t get back” rung true. You’ve seen those dreaded “FYI” emails. You kept reading to learn more.

That’s the power of storytelling—and the power of targeting the story.

Stephanie St. Martin is the Marketing Manager at Archetype Consulting. Follow her and Archetype on Twitter at @StephStMartin and @ArchetypeConsul.  And check out Archetype’s higher ed blog at http://archetypeconsulting.com/donor-analytics/.