In a previous post, "Structuring Your Data Story," I provide guidance on the big picture of storytelling — nailing down the five key elements of a story: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. However, if you've ever heard someone tell a story, you know it takes more than those five elements to make it interesting. The devil is in the details. Skilled storytellers embellish their stories with plenty of details that feed the imagination and stimulate the senses. They make you feel as though you're watching the action unfold before your eyes.

In a similar fashion, your data science team should include plenty of details in every story it tells to flesh it out and make it more memorable. Details are like little mental sticky notes that help the audience remember the characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. In addition, the details provide supporting evidence to the larger observations and claims being presented by the team.

Shots and Needles ?

An organization I once worked was struggling to get enough people to participate in its medical studies. The data science team was called in to figure out why. The team conducted some research and discovered that some people are afraid of needles, others are afraid of having their blood drawn, and a cross-section are afraid of both. This cross-section represented a lot of people.

The data science team asked some good questions and made some interesting discoveries. One such discovery was that people who participated in and had a positive experience with a medical study that did not involve needles or blood draws were more inclined to participate in future studies that die involve needles or blood draws.

The research lead (a nurse) had a great idea on how to tell that story with impact. She would start with a case study, changing the participant's name and a few details to protect the patient's anonymity. Her story went something like this:

When I was a nurse I could always tell who was afraid of needles. They always crossed their arms in a certain way. They grabbed both of their elbows as a way to protect themselves from the poke in the arm. There are a lot of people out there like that, and we need them to participate in our medical studies. So I'm going to tell you a little bit about someone I found in one of our reports.

Let's call her Tracy. She participated in one of our medical studies for a drug being developed to help people sleep. The first day of the study she showed up with her own pillow. She must've been optimistic about how well it would work. She was hoping that this new pill would help her since she had some trouble sleeping during periods of high stress.

It turned out that Tracy was one of the participants who didn't get any benefit from the drug. When she left, she told the nurse that her father was a doctor, so she felt some obligation to participate in medical studies. She said she could never be a doctor because she was scared of blood and needles. A few months later she decided to participate in a flu vaccine trial. The study required needles for the vaccination and for later blood tests.

So why did Tracy decide to participate?

The obvious answer the research lead's question is that Tracy participated because she felt an obligation to do so. After all, she didn't actually benefit in any way from the sleep study. She felt as though she couldn't contribute to helping others with their health issues directly by being a doctor or nurse, so she would do her part by participating in studies.

Now, think about the story you just read. What do you recall? Clearest in your mind are probably the details — the description of how people held their arms when they were afraid of needles, Tracy's name, Tracy bringing her pillow to the sleep study, what her dad did for a living, the trials she participated in, and so on. All of these details make it easier to remember the story and to remember the conclusion drawn from the story — that Tracy participated in medical studies because she felt obligated to do so.

When you tell a data science story, try to use details to paint a picture in words. They help your audience connect to characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution.

Avoid the Temptation to Deliver a Presentation

Data science is a combination of science and art. The data science team follows the scientific method to explore and discover — to add to the organization's growing body of knowledge and insight. The team then uses the art of storytelling to convey that knowledge and insight to people across the organization in a compelling and memorable way.

Business presentations are boring. They're not structured to be interesting. They're static. They communicate the current state of affairs. They’re like a verbal “reply all” to the organization's stakeholders. That’s usually fine for status meetings, but it falls short when you need to convey a point, make it stick, and transform the audience in a positive way.

Avoid the temptation to merely deliver reports or presentations. Use the data and the findings from your analysis to tell a compelling story. And be sure to include the details.

In a previous post, “Facilitating Better Data Analytics Questions," I stress the importance of asking compelling questions when serving as a member on a data science team. After all, questions are the impetus for exploration and discovery. In that post and a subsequent post, "Three Places to Look for Data Analytics Questions,"I recommend several techniques initiating question sessions.

However, the techniques I recommend aren't helpful unless you and others on your data science team are comfortable asking questions. In this post, I present four common reasons that data science team members may be uncomfortable asking questions. Simply by recognizing the common barriers to asking questions, you are better equipped to overcome those barriers on your own.

Self-Protection

Asking questions may be very uncomfortable, especially when you're asking someone who's in a position of authority and especially when the person you're asking has an intimidating presence. After all, your question may be perceived as being dumb or as challenging or threatening the other person. No doubt about it — some people have even been fired over asking very good questions.

As a result, many employees, even those who serve on a data science team, may be reluctant to ask compelling questions. They have a natural desire to protect themselves. Nobody wants to seem dumb, wrong, or confrontational.

Overcoming this barrier requires working up the courage to ask compelling questions. Sometimes, you just need to do it — force yourself. If you can't work up the courage, try the opposite tactic — fear. Remind yourself that your job is to ask good questions. If you don't ask, you're not doing your job. And if you don't do your job, your team will fail, and you'll all end up in the unemployment line.

The good news is that over time and with lots of practice, asking tough questions becomes second-nature. When you begin to see that asking questions isn't a threat, and you begin to reap the benefits of asking good questions, any fear you may have had quickly disappears.

Insufficient Time

Some data science teams just don't have enough time and energy to ask compelling questions. Asking questions is hard work; it's exhausting, especially when you're just getting started on a project. It might seem as though each question meeting gets longer. Instead of feeling as though you're making progress toward an answer or solution, you may feel as though you're getting further and further from it. At this point, the team can quickly become discouraged and stop asking.

Many data science teams fall into this trap, and as soon as they stop asking questions, they turn their attention to routine work, such as capturing and cleaning data or implementing new data analytics and visualization tools.

Often, the rest of the organization celebrates this shift from what's perceived as esoteric to more practical endeavors — real work. Many organizations prefer a busy team over an effective one. When this happens, everyone gets so focused on rowing that no one takes the time to question where the ship is headed and why.

Remember that there is no prize for the most data, the cleanest data set, or the best data analytics and visualizations. Prizes are given out for delivering insights and creating business value. You can't do that unless you spend quality time coming up with compelling and relevant questions.

Insufficient Experience

Some data science teams struggle to ask questions simply because they have little experience doing so. This is especially prevalent when team members are engineers, software developers, or project managers — people who have built their careers on answering questions and solving problems. These people want to do, not ask. Team members who come from science or academia tend to have an easier time making the transition.

Nothing is wrong with answers and solutions. In fact, a data science team often needs its members to propose answers and solutions, so those can be tested. However, during question sessions, the team needs to find a way to transform some statements into questions. For example, a team member who is unaccustomed to asking questions may say something like, "I see that more women than men are buying running shoes on our website. Maybe it's because our marketing department caters mostly to women.” The team could easily convert those statements into a question: "Why do more women than men buy running shoes on our website?"

Remember: statements don't spark discussion. Usually, the only option is for the other person to agree or disagree. With a question, the team can begin to consider a range of possibilities and discuss the data it needs to examine for answers.

A Corporate Culture That Stifles Questions

Some data science teams are stifled by a corporate culture that discourages employees from asking questions. In his book The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, social scientist Daniel Yankelovich points out that most organizations in the U.S. have a culture of action. When they encounter a problem, their first instinct is to fix what's broken. Asking questions impedes progress.

Quick, decisive action is often needed in organizations, but it's counterproductive in data science, where the focus is on learning and innovation. One thing you don’t want to see the data science team doing is getting wrapped up in routine work to accomplish something practical. You don’t want the research lead saying something like, “You can ask questions once you finish uploading all the data to the cluster.” The team shouldn't be focused on completing projects but on coming up with new insights.

When you’re working on a data science team, watch out for an individual or organizational bias against questions. Questioning is one of the first steps toward discovery. If you skip this step, your team, and the organization overall, will have trouble learning anything new.

In a previous post, "Encouraging and Facilitating Data Analytics Questions," I recommend a couple ways to get the get the ball rolling when it comes to getting people in your organization to start asking compelling questions. However, getting people to ask great questions is not always as simple as creating the right environment. Even a highly skilled data science team often needs more guidance.

To stimulate questions, it is often helpful to focus on specific areas that are fertile grounds for questions. In this post, I highlight three key areas that are not only the places you’ll find great questions, but also are a good place to start. These are questions that:

Note: These three areas are intended to initiate the process or get your team moving if it's stuck. Don't let these areas limit the scope of your exploration. If you address these three areas, you’re bound to come up with at least a few questions to grease the gears. When the team develops some momentum, team members will naturally ask more questions.

Clarify Key Terms

George Carlin once joked that he put a dollar in a change machine and nothing changed. Jokes like this are possible because many words in the English language have different meanings based on the context in which they're used and on different individual's understanding of the words. While jokes are funny, however, people often get into heated arguments when they don't have a shared understanding of what certain words or phrases mean. Just look at how different people define "success." For some, it's spending time with family, for others it's financial security, and for some knowledge or power.

The world of business is not immune to ambiguity inherent in certain terms; for example, ask two people to define "custom satisfaction." Does it simply mean that the person is a return customer? Is a customer who never complains satisfied? Can a customer who returns a product for a refund be satisfied? If a customer never buys another product, can we assume that customer was not satisfied?

Your data science team needs to be sensitive to ambiguous terms and nail down their intended meanings. Here's a short list of ambiguous terms commonly used in various organizations:

Identify "Facts" That Are Really Assumptions

People often accept assumptions as facts. A company's leadership, for example, may believe that the company has such a unique manufacturing process that nobody can compete with it on price or quality even when that's not true. The truth may be that some other company has yet to develop something better or that there is an entirely new product being developed somewhere that will make the company's existing product obsolete — leadership just doesn't know about it yet.

In general, assumptions have four characteristics:

Data science teams must remain on the lookout for false or questionable assumptions. Not all assumptions are bad. If the assumption reflects reality and facilitates positive or productive decisions and activity, it can be helpful. However, false assumptions can create blind spots and introduce misinformation into the decision-making process.

Reveal Errors in Reasoning

Data science teams need to be aware of the possibility of errors in data and errors in reasoning, which are even worse. A data error may result in a minor setback or a series of false reports. On the other hand, an error in reasoning can lead the team down the wrong path or result in completely wrong conclusions. Watch out for the following types of logical fallacies(reasoning that results in invalid arguments):

All three of the techniques described in this post boil down to listening and observing closely and being skeptical about what you hear and observe. Whenever you encounter a statement presented as a fact, ask yourself, "Is this really true?" Whenever you encounter someone presenting a position, ask yourself, "Is the conclusion based on sound reasoning?" Questions like this force you to take a closer look and determine for yourself the truth and validity of a statement or conclusion.

The success of any data science initiative hinges on the team's ability to ask interesting questions that are relevant to the organization's success and the team's ability and willingness to challenge assumptions and beliefs. After all, without questions, you can have no answers. However, asking compelling questions and challenging long-held beliefs that have become accepted as facts can be a significant challenge, especially in organizations with strict hierarchies that discourage questioning and the challenging of authority.

If your data science team is struggling to come up with compelling questions and hesitates to challenge assumptions, the suggestions I present in this post can get the ball rolling. Getting started is the most difficult part. As soon as the team gets into the swing of asking questions and questioning beliefs, it will have no shortage of follow-up questions and problems to investigate.

Conduct Question Meetings

One of the best ways to encourage data science team members to ask questions and challenge beliefs is to build an environment that's conducive to the free exchange of ideas. The research lead is ultimately responsible and can start to nurture the free exchange of ideas by modeling the desired behavior — listening and learning without judging. Everyone on the team should engage in deep listening— focused listening that enables them to hear and understand what others are saying, ignoring any initial impulse to judge what they hear. Team members need to recognize that they have plenty of time later to analyze what they hear, but the first step is to fully understand what the other person is getting at.

A good way to encourage questions and reinforce deep listening is to conduct question meetings. In these meetings, the research lead should encourage participants to ask questions before making statements. This techniques is sometimes called a "question first" approach. These meetings are about eliciting the maximum number of questions. They’re focused on everyone asking their questions and listening. Ban smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices from these meetings. Everyone should focus on listening, although you may want to assign one person in the meeting the task of taking notes.

Although question meetings are mostly unstructured, consider starting the meeting like this:

  1. Set the tone by starting with a question, such as “Does everybody know why we are having this meeting?” and then wait for a response. A good question leader is not afraid of short periods of silence. Don’t try to answer your own questions. Give everyone in the room time to think about their answer.
  2. When you’re satisfied that everybody understands the meeting's purpose, present the challenge. For example, you may say something like, "The CEO wants to know why we are losing market share to XYZ Corporation." Don't share what you think. Leave the topic open for the rest of the team to weigh in on. Sit down and wait to see if anyone starts asking questions.
  3. If, after a few minutes, no one says anything, you could ask something like, “Does everyone understand why this is a challenge?” What you’re hoping to get from the team is something like, “How do we know we're losing market share?” or "What is XYZ Corporation doing different or better than us?" or "When did this start?" These types of questions begin to guide the team's analysis. The team can then begin to decide which data it needs to examine and the types of analysis it needs to conduct.

Avoid quick statements that are likely to limit the scope of the discussion, such as "The CEO suspects that we are losing market share due to the recent reorganization of our marketing department." Such statements keep people from coming up with their best ideas. Remember that it’s the discussion that gives your team the greatest value. You want the team to consider all possibilities.

Evaluating Questions

After a question meeting, you should have plenty of questions — far more than you need and some far more valuable than others. Now it's time to pan for gold — to identify the few questions you want your team to explore.

When evaluating questions, it often helps to categorize questions as open- or close-ended and then identify individual questions as essential or non-essential:

If you’re the research lead, make sure that the team is not asking too many of any one type of question. Too many open-ended questions can result in the team spending too much time wondering and not enough time exploring the data. Too many close-ended questions can result in too much time digging up facts and too little time looking at the big picture.

You can also categorize questions as essential and non-essential:

Solicit Questions

If you’re a fan of detective shows, you’ve probably seen a crime wall. That’s when a detective tries to figure out all the different pieces of an unsolved mystery. He or she puts up pictures and notes on a wall and tries to connect the different pieces. The board becomes a visual story. That’s why you’ll often see the detective sitting on the floor staring at the board trying to pull together the story from all the little mysteries in the data.

Your data science team will have a similar challenge. They’ll try to tell a story but they’ll only have pieces of the puzzle. Your team can use the same technique to create a question board—a place where they can see all the questions and data. That way they can tell a larger story.

Creating a question board is a great way to display ideas and solicit questions from your team and the rest of the organization. At the very top of the board, you should put a simple identifier such as “question board” or “ask a question.” The question board is a clear way to communicate and organize them in one place.

Your data science team should have dozens or even hundreds of different questions. The question board will likely be a key meeting point for the team as well as a great place for team members and stakeholders to talk about the project.

To start, place your question board next to someone’s desk on the team or in a hallway. Open spaces aren’t good for a question board. You’ll want people to stand next to the board and read the questions. Another suggestion is to put the board next to an area with a lot of traffic. Ideal places are next to the water cooler, snack bar, or bathroom. It should be a place where several team members can meet and not distract other people.

Usually, the best way to organize your board is to use different color sticky notes. You’ll want to organize your board from top to bottom. The sticky notes at the top of the board contain your essential questions. Use red or pink sticky notes for these questions. Below them, you can use yellow sticky notes for nonessential questions. Remember that these are questions that address smaller issues. They are usually closed questions with a correct answer. Finally, you can use white or purple sticky notes for results. These are little data points that the team discovered that might help address the question.

There are five major benefits to having a question board:

  1. It gives the team a shared space to help with their group discussion.
  2. It shows how questions are interconnected.
  3. It helps you organize your questions by type.
  4. It helps you tell a story. The question board shows the larger questions that the team might be struggling to address.
  5. It gives other people in the organization a place to participate. You want people outside the team to add their own questions and see your progress.

Remember that you want your team to have deep discussions. Everyone should be able to question each other’s reasoning. The team should listen to each other’s questions and try to come up with questions of their own. They should be focused on learning and not judging the quality of their questions.

The question board helps with this because it provides a place for people to focus their discussions. It also helps the team stand up and participate physically and come up with new ideas.

Many of your questions will be interconnected. Often, you’ll have essential questions that are connected to several closed, nonessential questions. If it’s on the wall, you can use string to show these connections. If it’s on a whiteboard, you can just draw different colored lines. This will help your team stay organized and even prioritize their highest value questions.

The question board will invite other people outside your team to participate. You might want to leave a stack of green sticky notes next to the board. Leave a marker and a small note that invites other people to add their own questions. Sometimes these questions from outside the team tell the most interesting stories.

Create Question Trees

Your question board will be a key part of communicating your data science story. It should have the questions that your team is working to address. It may also have little bits of data that suggest some answers. A good question board encourages other people to participate and tempts people to be part of your shared story.

One of the challenges of a question board is to have it filled with questions and keeping it well organized. Since it’s designed for a group discussion, you want everyone to be able to share the same information. It shouldn’t have several different groups of one person’s notes. If each group only has one person’s ideas, that one person will be the only one to understand its meaning.

Instead, all your questions should be organized using the same system. One of the best ways to do this is by creating question trees. A question tree is a group of sticky notes all related to one essential question. You’ll want to have the essential questions as the most attention grabbing color. Usually this is either red or pink.

Let’s imagine a question board for our running shoe website. One question that your team came up with is, “Can our website help encourage non-runners become runners?” If you’re the research lead for the team, you want to put this essential question on a red sticky at the very top of the board.

Underneath that essential question, you can start adding other questions. It could be another essential question such as, “What makes people run?” It could also be a nonessential question like, “Do non-runners shop on our site?” Since this is a closed question, you could put a little data sticky next to the yellow question sticky. Maybe something like, “Data suggest that 65% of our customers don’t run in a given week.” You could use a pie chart like the one shown below to illustrate this point.

Running per week chart

Assume that this generated data comes from a survey that the company did on its customers. The question asked, “How many times, on average, do you run per week?” When you look at the data, you see that about 65% of the respondents don't run at all. 55% of the respondents run more than once per week.

Someone looking at the question tree should be able to follow the thought process of the team. She should see that the lower branches of questions started with one open-ended essential question (“Can our website help encourage non-runners become runners?”) and see the team addressing that question. She should be able to follow it all the way down to different branches.

Let’s say that the question, “What makes people run?”, branches off in its own direction. Underneath that question is another question that says, “Do they run to relieve stress?” Underneath that is another question that says, “Can non-runners who are stressed see the benefits of running?”'

With the question tree, the research lead now has a report to show progress to the rest of the organization. She could show that the data science team is working on several high-value questions simultaneously. It shouldn’t be too difficult to see how gaining insight into creating customers might increase revenue.

The question trees help the research lead connect the team’s work to real business value. A question board should have several questions trees. At the very top of the board, there should be several red or pink essential questions. Each of these should branch down like an upside down tree into several other questions. Be sure to use different color sticky notes as discussed previously (essential questions red or pink and nonessential questions yellow). Sometimes open questions will branch off into different question trees and you should end closed questions with little sticky notes that show the data.

Like any tree you’re going to want to prune your questions. This is one of the key responsibilities of the research lead. She needs to make sure that your questions lead to real business value. If he doesn’t think your questions will lead to insights, he might want to pull them off the question board so the data analyst doesn’t start searching for results.

Note: The research lead usually removes questions as part of the team’s question meetings. You don’t want your research lead pulling questions off the board without communicating the change to the team.

One of the key things about question trees is that they actually mirror how most teams come up with new questions. Remember that data science is using the scientific method to explore your data, which means that most of your data science will be empirical. Your team will ask a few questions, gather the data, and then they will react to that data and ask a series of questions. When you use a question tree, it reflects what the team has learned. At the same time, it shows the rest the organization your progress.