Perspective: Use Sticky Urban Myths to Sell BI

How did one Las Vegas keynote speaker make listeners pick up a handout to read along? Simple techniques can make all the difference.

I like muffins. I was eating one at the TDWI World Conference breakfast during Bob Paladino's keynote in Las Vegas last month when he surprised me -- along with each of the other five people at my table. He made each of us forget the muffins and pick up the handout to read along.

All he had to do was tell a story. It was about Southwest Airlines, one I'd heard a few times before -- but nevertheless a story. Like any good story, it was tangible and contextual, and it had a beginning and an end.

During much of that and many other technology conferences I've attended since 1995, I wondered why so many speakers, writers, and marketers fog up their messages. Business intelligence seems especially ripe for good storytelling. Isn't BI about letting the data tell its story?

One attendee (who asked to remain anonymous) complained in the exhibit hall, "They [product marketers] just keep using this jargon. It's like politics. Pretty soon it doesn't mean anything."

In Las Vegas, I found some sparkling examples of good message-making. In the two sessions I attended conducted by former TDWI education director Dave Wells, the speaker added beef to his session with good, meaningful stories and examples. So did Steve Dine of DataSource Consulting, who taught "Lean BI."

Dine said new users of BI are clamoring for "tangibility." "The tools and lingo have to be connected for them to create tangible understanding, not just theory." To drive home the point that BI had to offer value to users, he told about his old Toyota Forerunner. It seemed to never require service. The brakes held up. The muffler had to be replaced once in the first 200,000 miles or so.

Another name for this quality is concreteness, which is one of the six principles for "sticky" ideas in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007).

By the way, did you hear the story about the guy who woke up in a Las Vegas hotel bathtub to find his kidney had been harvested? Of course you have, and it probably happened to a friend of your old college roommate's neighbor. You've also heard about the albino sewer-dwelling alligators.

The "sticky" nature of these and so many other urban legends intrigued the authors. They reverse-engineered the legends into six principles.

Sticky ideas are simple. They're also credible. Urban myths put the storyteller just one or two degrees apart from the protagonist. Furthermore, each story arouses surprise and emotion.

Even more relevant to business intelligence, though, is that they appeal to tangible, sensory events.

Of all Made to Stick's principles, storytelling is the most exciting principle for BI.

If the ultimate benefit of BI is insight -- not just a tidy warehouse full of data and not even "a single version of the truth" -- then the sales challenge is more difficult than for most technology. In telecommunications, for example, a new product can usually promise that some process will occur faster or more reliably. What's the honest pitch for performance dashboard software? Perhaps the best way to sell it is by showing what others discovered with it.

You've heard before that visualization is great for analytics. It's different, though, to hear about one Southeastern power company overwhelmed by data. It finally went for help to a company that specialized in sorting out such messes. Only when the power execs saw their data represented in charts did they realize what questions to ask about their operation.

Irritable minds may now protest that that's kid stuff. BI at any depth is complicated. How do you create simple, concrete stories about ETL, data governance, reporting, and statistics?

It might be impossible, but here's how Albert Einstein begins to explain the Theory of Relativity, slightly paraphrased:

I stand at the window of a railway carriage which is traveling uniformly and drop a muffin on the embankment without throwing it. Then, disregarding the air resistance, I see it descend in a straight line. A pedestrian who observes the misdeed observes it fall to the ground in a parabolic curve.

"In reality," he asks then, does it fall in a straight line or a curve? The explanation goes on a few hundred words more, but the rest of it is just as easy to follow.

Einstein told a simple story, as Paladino did. He also did what most people should be able to do: think clearly. That's the beginning of good explanations -- and good communication.

Sometimes, though, there's actually nothing to say. "Sometimes there's just no 'there' there," said Kevin Brown, vice president of alliances and partnerships at Tableau Software. "Marketing should be simple." For example, "If you don't give the price out front, you're hiding something." In the same way, if you can't say what you mean clearly, you're also hiding something, or else you don't know what you're saying.

You must often ask yourself: Should I try to read this foggy piece of writing and half a minute later find my mind skittering off the page? How many of us give up on something that actually has value? The number of people who do abandon BI messages is a loss to the industry.

I'm sure you can understand that by the end of the last day I escaped to the far end of Caesar's Palace to hole up with a beer and a pork chop. There, one line in a New York Times article on boutique dairies that do without advertising seemed to stand out: it discussed "letting the cheese stand for itself."

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP, is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco area. He can be reached at ted5@datadoodle.com.