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Advance Possibility

From Data to Strategy: Three Storytelling Tactics to Accelerate Data-Driven Decision Making in Healthcare Organizations

Ramneek Kaur
Solutions Consultant
November 2, 2023

Approximately 30% of the world’s data volume today is being generated by the healthcare industry, yet only 20% of healthcare organization executives trust their data. While numerous healthcare organizations quote data quality, integration, and interoperability as their top strategic priorities, few prioritize programs focused on data literacy — the ability to think critically about data and to communicate data in a business context. In fact, research by Accenture shows only 21% of employees are confident in their data literacy skills.

This statistic has a profound impact on practices to be considered while presenting data to clinical and business decision makers and leveraging multifaceted information to create and recommend high-stakes strategies. Fortunately, thousands of years before Powerpoint presentations and intelligent dashboards existed, humans created a way of sharing knowledge that lasted generations and enabled the entire human race to survive — storytelling. Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling; researchers have found that the human brain pays greater attention to narratives than just data, and this leads to improved comprehension in listeners.

There’s a plethora of techniques used in storytelling that data analysts and strategy consultants can leverage while presenting data and insights, but below are three that can be implemented even if the presentation is just one hour away.

1. Begin with the end

When we see the opening scene of Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club,” we know something big is going to happen; we are hooked. That’s because the story starts at the end. This structure of storytelling, simply called Beginning with the End, tells the audience what to expect and, most importantly, why THIS story.

In order to present viable strategies to decision makers, data analysts and strategy consultants in healthcare perform multiple steps including data cleaning, number crunching, creating different strategies, and measuring the potential impact of these strategies through varied outcomes and data sources. But we cannot expect the audience to go through all these steps alone. We need to tell them in the beginning why they should give us their time and attention.

While presenting, keep in mind who the audience is and how they would measure the success of a specific program. Stakeholders in healthcare share a common goal of providing the highest quality care in a timely and cost-effective manner. However, different departments may have different KPIs including patient engagement, retention, provider performance, and cost savings.

2. Great stories are simple and focused

It’s never a good experience to watch a movie where you have to keep asking yourself or someone else what’s happening in the plot. The same applies to communicating a strategy — it should be clear to both the presenter and the audience why a certain insight, number, or visual is a part of the story.

Even though many professionals like to see themselves as multitaskers, neuroscientists have found that the human brain can only focus on two to four things at once. This has noteworthy implications on how information should be shared, especially when strategic decisions depend on it. A simple rule of thumb to create a clear and retainable structure of information is the Rule of Three. Once you start looking, you’ll find that the Rule of Three is everywhere — three wise monkeys, the Three Musketeers, rock, paper, scissors, past, present, future.

3. Give your data opinions

One of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling is to give your characters opinions. Passive or malleable might seem likeable to you as the writer, but it’s poison to the audience. When it comes to decision-making, a similar phenomenon is demonstrated by the ‘ambiguity effect’, which shows the human brain dislikes uncertainty and tends to avoid options they consider to be ambiguous or unclear.

A robust strategy is rooted firmly in data, and often uses multiple sources and points of data. To ensure that the key takeaway is not lost in the sea of data, being explicit in communicating what the audience needs to remember goes a long way. A 2019 behavioral intervention study of physicians confirmed that when physicians were presented with accurate, actionable data on their performance, measured outcomes improved 2.5 times more than when physicians were given only general best practices.

While presenting insights, the quickest way to achieve clarity is by implementing Talking Headers in the title of the slide/screen where data is presented. A Talking Header, like the name suggests, is what a slide would say if it could talk. When a slide is titled ‘2022 Update’ with a bunch of data below, the audience is expected to decode the message on their own. But a slide titled “2022: Engagement 2% lower than in 2021” eliminates ambiguity and keeps the audience focused on the message.

We often hear that strategies are only as accurate as the data they are based on, but even accurate charts, tables, and dashboards might fall flat with the intended audience until they understand the context and resonate with the narrative. The three storytelling learnings described above warrant attention, focus, and clarity from recipients which is vital to supporting and influencing strategic decision-making in healthcare.