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Don't give them four; give them two plus two

An important lesson for data analysts from Andrew Stanton

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There’s this video on the TED website—it’s quite a famous video, as it happens (1,174,394 views at the last count)—and it’s Andrew Stanton on The Clues to a Great Story. (Oh yes, and before you’re tempted to click on the link, you do need to know that his talk begins with a joke with an NSFW punch line.)

Who is Andrew Stanton? He’s the man that wrote and directed Pixar movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E. This man knows a thing or two about story-telling.

And one of the pieces of advice he dishes out in his talk occurs at 7’13” into the video. He says:

Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four; give them two plus two.

And this piece of advice is one that has troubled me, because I always try and think about story-telling in the context of data, and I’ve usually subscribed to the idea when you are presenting data, you should try and transform your data into a narrative if at all possible, but that you should also make that narrative as easy to digest as possible. In other words, I’ve always thought that you should give the audience four; and not two plus two.

I was teaching my Visualizing Statistics course to a group of nine analysts in Edinburgh yesterday, and Andrew Stanton’s advice cropped up. We were discussing how you would go about explaining a histogram with superimposed deciles (this kind of thing) to an audience of NHS managers. Laypeople. We were talking about the words you'd choose to describe a graph that’s not completely straightforward.

And one of the things that emerged from this discussion is that as analysts we often find ourselves in this position. We’ve created a graphic, a visualization, that isn’t so standard that it can be interpreted without the need for a few words of explanation. We’ve created a graphic that needs a narrative, just so that the reader or viewer can make sense of it. We’re giving them two plus two and they are having to make the effort to come up with the answer four.

We can help them get to four by explaining it; but fundamentally it is they who have to put two and two together and come up wit the answer four.

Now, instinctively, I’m thinking that this is bad news for us. By presenting graphs that require explanation, graphs that can’t be interpreted instinctively, we are forcing managers to think. Think hard.

Those of you have heard me talk about how depressed Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow has made me will know that this is a big thing for me at the moment. The idea that data analysts are presenting managers with something that is going to be hard work (something that requires slow System Two thinking) is thoroughly depressing. It makes you wonder why you chose to go into this data-analysis-and-presentation business in the first place.

But in fact, if you go back to Andrew Stanton’s TED talk, and you listen to what he has to say before he says the two plus two thing, you realise that there is a nuance to it.

Stanton says this:

The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal.

We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.

There's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It's not just that they're damn cute; it's because they can't completely express what they're thinking and what their intentions are. And it's like a magnet. We can't stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two. Make the audience put things together. Don't give them four; give them two plus two.

This puts things in a different light. An altogether more optimistic light, I’m relieved to say.

 Instead of continuing to be depressed by Kahneman’s view that people generally hate System Two thinking because it’s hard work, and will run a mile from System Two thinking to prevent themselves from having to do it, I’m now inspired by the idea that when we’re presenting data that’s complicated, our job is indeed to make managers “work for their meal.” Even better, it turns out that they do actually want to work for their meal. But—and this is a big but—we also have to hide the fact that we’re making them work for their meal.

And we’ll do that by making our explanation so crisp, so clear, so engaging that we take managers from a place where they’re confused to a place where there’s clarity (because Stanton is right: we all get a good feeling when we move from a position of not understanding something to suddenly being able to understand it. We are born problem-solvers). And we do this without them realising it.

In fact, we have to do what the jazz bassist Charles Mingus once said:

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

One of my favourite books about storytelling and the power of story is Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Here’s what Gottschall says on page 102 of that book:

We each of us have a little Sherlock Holmes in our brain. His job is to reason backwards from what we can observe in the present and show what orderly series of causes led to particular effects. Evolution has given us an “inner Holmes” because the world really is full of stories (intrigues, plots, alliances, relationships of cause and effect), and it pays to detect them. The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than a blooming, buzzing confusion.

So when we stand up in an NHS meeting to explain a histogram with superimposed deciles (or any other “non-straightforward” chart, for that matter), our job is to help our audience reason backwards from the chart so that they can make sense of the chart and then interpret it in a way that has meaning and resonance for their actions and decisions.

And we have to do that without making them aware that we are actually doing that. We have to make them work for their lunch but without making them realise that they’re working for their lunch.

Piece of cake.

[7 February 2014]

 

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Comments on this article

7 February 2014:

The Gottschall quote is intriguing, from Kahneman's view that System 1 works on the basis of "what you see is all there is". Another skill seems to me to be the ability to either; a) give enough data to allow your audience to make a *relevant* deduction using System 1, or; b) give your audience the "narrative" gradually and thus make a number of bite-sized System 1 judgements and then force their System 2 to join them up.

Leigh Jones

Principal Information Analyst, Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

7 February 2014:

Neil, I think you need to go and watch some Harold Pinter plays. The nearest to two plus two that he gets to is giving you two numbers and leaving it up to you whether you think adding is appropriate or not. But he’s definitely not going to be silly enough to believe that there is an answer.

Helen Blest

Principal Information Analyst, Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

17 February 2014:

Haven't read Kahneman's book (yet) but I can't help thinking that there is a time and a place for both answers. Sometimes you just need to give the answer 4. But other times you need to make them 'work for their supper'. I guess the smart analyst knows which one to give when.

Mike Davidge

Director, NHS Elect