Too many numbers

Too many numbers (Photo credit: pedrik)

Numbers don’t lie, but they can certainly be confusing if they aren’t told with a good story behind them. Context, interpretation, and maybe even a little flare is critical to getting your message heard, understood, trusted, and most importantly: acted upon.

If presented with a spreadsheet with countless tabs and row after row of numbers and averages and other statistics that go out to well into the double letters, if you’re not the one who produced the report, would you ever look at all of those numbers? I think the answer is almost certainly not. So the real question is this: How does someone make those numbers interesting? Well, simply, they don’t. Unless you’re a statistics nut, the numbers will never be interesting on their own. However, below are some ideas on how to get your message across a little better:

Know Your Audience

Fine, this might sound tired, maybe you’ve heard it before, but it never hurts to remind someone of who they are writing for. Is your target someone who is technically savvy? Is it an executive? Is it a project manager? Each of these people have a few overlapping interests, but by and large they need to be approached in a radically different fashion. Telling an project manager that a server is performing slowly won’t mean much. Tell him that due to performance concerns the project may have to be held back for an iteration and suddenly you have his attention. Tell either of those to an executive and he may or may not care, but if you tell him that the roll-out of the final product is being delayed and the cost of delay is $X per day and then suddenly the executive is paying attention as well. The answer is all the same: fix the problem on the server which is causing slow performance. The way to get people to care about fixing the problem is different for each audience.

Tell a Story

Don’t just throw some numbers at someone. Tell them a story about the numbers. Include the good and the bad. Would you rather look at a seemingly never-ending set of numbers or would you rather read something like:

“The test we ran yesterday showed significant improvements in the customer search process (23% over the last test) but the stability of the drill down process is in question due to a large variance in the transaction response times. After some further research we found that there is a table missing an index in the database. Our recommendation is that an index be added with the following parameters:

[snip]

The impacts of letting this iteration of code go live would outweigh the impacts of delaying the release for two days while the index is added and the tests are re-run for the following reasons:

[snip]

I have attached the supporting documentation for those who would like to peruse it.

Certainly one would probably want to put in a few other things like the benefits of making the change (beyond the technical) and then wrap it all up in a nice little bow, but the point stands… if you’re in the position of implementing a performance management plan (through performance testing, monitoring, capacity planning, or reporting) then you’re put in the position of not only running the test and reporting the numbers, but also interpreting those numbers for people who either don’t know, or worse, think they know all of it.

Don’t Waste Their Time

You only have a few moments to get your point across so make every moment count. The average email is only read for about 15-20 seconds. Make sure your most critical points can be gleaned in that amount of time. If you need more time, then the concept of telling a story becomes even more important. You have 15 seconds to get them hooked. Put the most important information in the first sentence of each paragraph. Put the most critical message in a short form on a single line to draw attention to it. This line doesn’t have to be the opener, it can be in the second or third paragraph so long as it stands out on its own. The key here is to be strategic about getting your message across.

About the Author

Matthew Bradford has been in the I.T. Performance Business for 13 years and has been critical to the success of many Fortune 500 Performance Management groups. He is currently the CTO of InsightETE, an I.T. Performance Management company specializing in passive monitoring and big data analytics with a focus on real business metrics.

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