workers asleep during office meeting
Written by Roger Jackson,
June 19th, 2019 | Views

Data Meetings. They usually don’t work well – but what’s the alternative?

Data is the currency of modern business. Getting the right conclusions and taking action driven by data is critical to personal and collective success. But I reckon the canary has just keeled over in the coal mine.

I have probably sat through or presented at over hundreds, maybe even a thousand data presentations in my career. Just recently (I am a slow learner) I have started to wonder more and more about how to share data in a way that creates real value and more business impact. I am thinking here about quantitative research more than equal, but the principles still apply to any research “debrief”. We have seen a massive increase in data meetings, driven by the simple fact there is just far more data available than ever before.

Let me share the issues I am wrestling with, then a start point as a suggestion for action. A charter for change one might say. I am sure you have all been to enough research meetings to have a point of view. Maybe we can share them?

My issues:

  • We know most people in most situations can concentrate fully for only about 20 minutes. We may flatter ourselves otherwise, but this is the reality. We start to “dip in and out”.
  • We don’t absorb information from visuals quickly if a lot of information is incorporated, e.g. in a PPT slide. We are better with pictures. Numbers become swirling “fog” pretty quickly. But what data to show?
  • Our heads are full of our current pressing issues, in the main we only really want to focus on these, so if presented with less relevant material, we will lose focus (mentally leave the room).
  • We remember little of what we are told. At best we will recall headlines if and that’s a big if, the headlines have some relevance or linkage to what we care about already. If we don’t remember it, what value did it create?
  • People need to get involved actively (not passively) to engage with, learn from and recall information, i.e. to learn. Listening isn’t easy to make active.
  • The quantity of audience silence in a data meeting can often be deafening. What’s really going on? I reckon the absence of questions doesn’t equal: “I understand” – it more likely means “I zoned out”.
  • Finally (there are more, but I have to stop somewhere) the difference between charts designing to communicate learning (or “take away”) and charts attempting to show the data that’s the source of the learning are often confused, or there isn’t time to do both well. Particularly since some attendees do want to see all the data, and others absolutely don’t.

BUT this is the reality: a typical research meeting involved data is a) an hour or more in length b) heavy on data charts, c) not directly relevant to many of the attendees, d) is passive, not active. Usually, research presenters work really hard on distilling information, coming up with a lively style, preparing attractive charts, but at best this only makes the event 20% better. My canary keeled over because I think we have all been kidding ourselves that these meetings work ok. I also have a personal beef that meetings should only be used for things that only meetings can do. Which in the main is conduct (interactive) discussion?

So, easy to be critical, what’s my charter?

I am feeling radical, so how about banning research presentations over 20 minutes? Refusing to have meetings where each participant hasn’t put forward at least one personal goal (in the form of a desired commercial outcome) for attending, given to the presenter in advance; and here is the big one: that doesn’t include the attendees working on the data in the meeting to get to their own “so whats”. It’s going to be a bit scary and harder to prepare for, but isn’t it just honest to recognize the problem and sensible to try ways to get better use out of everyone’s time?

In essence, can we shift the meeting to enable working on the “so what” rather than being all about communicating the “data”?