“Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.”

– Stephen Few, data visualization expert
30. November 2022

Data Storytelling: The Last Mile

This is a guest post by Paul Barnhurst

My legs felt like jelly, my mind was telling me to go faster, but my legs had nothing left to give as I struggled through the last part of the race. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was only 17 and running my first marathon through the mountains of Salt Lake. The first 20 miles went great, but around mile 20, everything changed as I hit the dreaded wall. I tried to speed up, but it became apparent my body was rebelling, it was done. I had to drag my body through the last several miles of the race as I watched people pass me and saw my hopes of achieving my desired time fade. I finished the race, but the "last mile" was grueling.

This story is an analogy of what it is like for many of us working in FP&A. In FP&A we are regularly asked to work on analytical projects centered around vast amounts of data. The analytical process typically goes something like the following:

  • Identify the problem

  • Gather the data

  • Analyze the data

  • Develop insights and recommendations

  • Review different scenarios and conduct sensitivity analysis

  • Present the story (insights and recommendations)

  • Make a business decision

Analyzing data is where the average FP&A professional shines. We love digging through data trying to find solutions, and many of us are most comfortable torturing the data in Excel, forcing it to reveal its secrets. However, when it comes to presenting the data to management all too often, we put the data into a couple of charts/graphs, throw it into PowerPoint at the last minute, or even worse we take our monster spreadsheet with us and rush off to the meeting. Spending so much time analyzing the data only to fail when presenting the data is a problem that is all too common in FP&A. As FP&A professionals, we need to be better at the last mile, which involves:

  • Reviewing different scenarios and conduct sensitivity analysis

  • Presenting the Story

  • Influencing the business decision

Scenario Modeling and Sensitivity Analysis

After conducting our initial analysis and developing insights and recommendations, it is always beneficial to conduct a sensitivity analysis and think through different scenarios that could impact our recommendations prior to presenting the data. Take, for example, if we were analyzing sales data to develop new commission plans aimed at better aligning our sales incentives with our products. It would be beneficial to run multiple scenarios and list the potential pros and cons of each of the different approaches. It would also be helpful to run a sensitivity analysis to see what happens at different sales levels to the commission paid out to make sure the plan makes sense throughout the range of possible numbers. Conducting this analysis prior to the meeting will allow you to be better prepared for the questions you will receive and for presenting the full data story.

Present the Story

Presenting the story is often referred to as the last mile. We may have run the race flawlessly up to this point, but if we stumble during the last mile everything we accomplished up to this point can feel like it was for naught.  I have experienced the last mile stumble more than once.  I once worked on a project for several weeks with our sales team to come up with a new commission proposal to help roll out a new program.  I coordinated closely with the General Manager of the business, the SVP of sales, the regional CFO, and the account owner.  I had conducted all sorts of analyses, developed what I believed were solid recommendations, and went into the meeting, certain our CFO would sign off on our proposal.  I started to present to him the analysis we had conducted, and about 5 minutes into the presentation, he stopped me and told me the idea was terrible.  I was shocked as I was certain the idea was solid, and everyone I had worked with up to that point agreed.  The CFO then called the General Manager into the meeting and, after talking to him for 5 minutes, approved the project.  After the meeting, I asked my boss what went wrong.  He told me the analysis I had done was brilliant, but the presentation was lacking.  I had fallen victim to not spending enough time on the last mile.  I failed to focus on presenting the story and data in a manner that was easy to understand, digest, and take away key recommendations.  

Presenting a powerful story involves both the presenter and the presentation working in harmony to convey the problem, and relay the insights and recommendations developed during the analysis process.  When presenting the story make sure to leave adequate time to craft the story and select the right visuals for the story.

When it comes to crafting the story for FP&A, it is about:

  • Explaining the problem

  • Providing a brief explanation of the analysis conducted

  • Sharing insights gained

  • Providing recommendations

One of the hardest parts of presenting is deciding what data and visuals to include in the presentation. In the words of Edward Tufte:

“The whole purpose of an analytical display is to assist the viewer’s cognitive task in looking at evidence.”

– Edward Tufte, author, professor, and data visualization expert

The good news is in today's world, more options exist than ever before for visualizing the data and presenting the story to the business.  One of the best things we can do is present the data in a way that is easy to understand and allows for an interactive presentation and, when possible, real-time analysis of key data drivers and assumptions.  One tool that works great to help present the story in an interactive way is GRID.  GRID is a tool that works with spreadsheets (Excel/Google Sheets), Airtable, and Notion  allowing one to present complex data and helps in making your numbers easily make sense visually.  The tool not only allows one to present the story in a cloud-based tool, but it makes it easy to change key assumptions and see how it changes the results. 

An embedded example of a GRID document designed for conducting a revenue projection is provided below:


To interact more with the document in GRID and see the underlying data click here. The above example is designed for a meeting where you want to interact with the attendees and be able to modify the assumptions and see the impact without having to take them through a detailed Excel model.

Another example of what you can build in GRID can be found here and allows one to walk through an Interactive SaaS Financial model and update the various assumptions throughout the meeting and see how they impact the business. Explore the embedded section of a GRID doc below to get a hands-on sense of SaaS customer metrics.

Influence the Business Decision

The main reason we need to spend more time on the presentation is because the presentation we give will play a large part on what business decision is made.  After completing our analysis and developing our insights and recommendations we must find a way to share that analysis with the business leaders through our presentation.  When we are able to build a compelling case for our recommendations and present them in a way that is easy to understand and validate through interactive presentations, we increase the likelihood that senior leaders will be influenced by our analysis. If we focus all of our time on the presentation and give little thought to the presentation the chances of influencing the business to make smart decisions based on our analysis and recommendations is limited.

Conclusion

In summary, every FP&A professional needs to have the ability to conduct a data analysis.  A typical data analysis will consist of the following skills:

  • Identify the problem

  • Gather the data

  • Analyze the data

  • Develop insights and recommendations

  • Review different scenarios and conduct sensitivity analysis

  • Present the story (insights and recommendations)

  • Make a business decision

When going through the data analysis process, we must ensure we leave more time for “The Last Mile”. We need to spend more time working on presenting the data in an interactive way that ensures management has the information necessary to make an informed decision. If we do not spend adequate time on the “Last Mile” more often than not, we will fail to deliver the value the business expects from us. This is why it is so important that we spend more time thinking about and crafting the visuals and story to support our analysis. Do not miss out on achieving your full potential because you failed to push through “The Last Mile” Of your analysis. Presenting is a key step in the process, and the more time we spend developing our craft, the better we will become at it. Remember the reason the presentation portion is so important is because:

“Data stories are powerful vehicles for sharing data insights to influence and drive change within an organization”

- Brent Dykes, Adventures in Data Storytelling: Three Key Traps to Avoid

Next time you are working on a presentation, and you want an easy way to visually present the data you have in your spreadsheet model, Airtable, or Notion give GRID a try. GRID is an easy-to-use tool that allows one to present data in an interactive format in the cloud. To learn more about GRID and sign up for a free account click here.

Paul Barnhurst

The FP&A guy

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