Recommended reading for December

Recommended reading

December is always an interesting month. Analysts, software companies and journalists post a ton of predictions, reviews and opinions to celebrate the start of the new year. 2012 is not different. Here are a a few posts that I highly recommend reading.

Most influential visualizations

Tableau Software without a doubt knows a lot about data visualization techniques. That’s why I happily viewed one of their new presentations out on Slideshare. It’s called ‘The 5 most influential data visualizations of all time”. Some of the featured visualizations have been discussed by Stephen Few and Edward Tufte, but it’s well worth spending a few minutes reviewing and thinking about how they changed the course of time.

The statisticians at Fox News

Are you ready for some hilarious reading? Well, here it is. The good folks over at the Simply Statistics blog compiled a number of data visualizations that appeared on Fox News (don’t worry – this is NOT about politics). Most of the featured charts are flawed from a technical point of view, but it turns out that they do an excellent job of communicating the intended message (which can be very different from what the actual data says….). Read with a smile but don’t loose focus on the idea that there is an important message! Most of us strive to produce visualizations, dashboards and reports to provide an accurate portrait of reality. But we can also twist this around and do the opposite: confuse and mislead. You might also want to take a quick look at the comment section of that blog entry. That’s where the post starts getting political.

Simply statistics

One of the charts that is being discussed.

Nucleus Top Ten Predictions for 2013

Nucleus is one of those research houses that produces very interesting reports. I don’t always agree with the stuff that they write, but it is certainly amongst the most tangible in the industry. Their 2013 predictions don’t disappoint. And guess what – BI is on top of the list. The remaining predictions represent a mixture of different trends – most of which affect analytics to a certain degree. In any case, the free report is well worth a five minute investment. One of my favorite statements is: “It’s time to make sure HP has signed its organ donor card.” You can download the free report from the Nucleus website.

Nucleus predictions 2013

 

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Is your analytics solution a trusted advisor?

The trusted advisor?

Many of us get really frustrated when business people do not immediately embrace our analytics solutions. But let’s step in their shoes for a moment. Trusting analytics for decision making is leap of faith. Imagine you are a manager who is used to listening to his gut feeling and intuition. We can’t expect that person to immediately embrace the latest and greatest analytics solution. As a matter of fact, data can often be viewed as some scary. Starting to rely on analytics can therefore often feel like the proverbial leap of faith.

Why is that so? When we simplify the feelings that a new analytics user experiences we can identify three major stages.

  1. Reject: Can I trust the data? What am I supposed to do with it?
  2. Accept: I can see the value but I can’t identify the stories
  3. Embrace: This is cool! What else can I do with this?

We as analytics professionals have the duty to help people make that leap of faith. We have to make it easy for them to get from stage 1 to stage 3.

Acceptance of Analytics

A personal story

About ten years ago, I got really serious about my running and cycling. Instead of just following my gut feeling for developing a training plan, I purchased a heart rate monitor, a cycling power meter and some analytics software.

Stage 1 – Reject: The initial experience was intimidating. Getting everything to work was complicated and there were a ton of data drop-outs. What about the data itself? It did not tell me anything. All I saw was a bunch of colorful charts and nothing else. I was ready to throw the stuff out of the door. It felt like a waste of time.

Stage 2 – Accept: After a few weeks, however, things started to work smoothly and a coach finally helped me understand the charts and taught me how to identify a few weaknesses in my approach. Based on those insights, I tweaked my plan a little bit. It was a positive step forward but I was still waiting for the big impact.

Polar

Relying on analytics can be a leap of faith

Stage 3 – Embrace: Studyingbooks and consulting with other athletes allowed me to achieve a real break-through. That’s when I finally learned to really rely on the data. Here is an example: Analysis showed that I had trained too hard for over two years. I needed to change my approach and spend more time recovering. It sounded scary: Train slower to race faster? Guess what – it worked! Once I started to back off, I was able to dramatically improve my performance. And that is my personal story of moving from stage 1 (reject) to stage 3 (embrace).

Your role

Don’t expect your users to immediately embrace your cool analytics solution. It is a leap of faith. It is your job to help and coach them. Show them how they can apply their data and the associated insights. Also, make sure that you develop solutions that are easy to use and that communicate clearly. Don’t let them alone. Move them along these three stages. It’s your responsibility! You can also find some ideas how to do that on this blog.

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Inspiration from Stephen Few

Greetings from San Francisco. I am back here to attend Osisoft’s vCampus developer conference. The conference kicked off with a true highlight: Stephen Few delivered one of the keynote presentations. Hopefully, all of you know Stephen and the awesome work he has done over the past years. Today’s presentation was content-rich and also very entertaining. There were a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I will write up a short summary of his messages over the weekend and share it on this blog.

Is this the information age?

Stephen Few started his presentation with a strong statement: We do not live in the information age…..yet. Instead, many of us are drowning in data and we struggle with making sense of the data. Part of the issue is that we are lacking ‘data-sensemaking’ skills. To highlight this point, Stephen Few showed a video. I had never seen it before. It’s funny but there is a strong message behind it: we do not understand how to deliver information properly.

Those concentric circles

Does your organization have a ‘concentric circle’ problem? I certainly know a lot of them. It’s time to change that. Take some time to evaluate whether your reports and dashboards are able to deliver real information.

Concentric circles

“Concentric circles” in the corporate world

 

Check back here in the next few days for a summary of Stephen Few’s presentation.

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Book recommendation: How will you measure your life

Book Recommendation

Some of you might have noticed that the posting frequency on this blog has decreased a bit. I have been traveling more than ever before. This past Saturday, I returned from a 15 day business trip to San Francisco. As tough as traveling sometimes is, it does provide you with some quiet time for reading. And that’s exactly what I did on those 13 hour flights. Right before I left, Amazon.com had posted a number of fantastic new business books in their monthly 3.99 Kindle promotion section. There are a bunch of really good books this month. One stood out.

How Will You Measure Your Life?

“How will you measure your life” is a relatively new book by famous innovation expert Clayton Christensen. It is based on a speech he gave to the 2010 graduating class of Harvard Business School. This is not another business book. Instead, Christensen provides powerful and provocative ideas for finding meaning and happiness in our life. Sounds like a self-help book? Not at all. Christensen blends personal stories with deep business research. The combination of business ideas and personal life is what makes this book such an enjoyable and valuable read. Christensen looks at some of the more well-known theories such as Herzberg or the discovery-driven planning approach. He then applies those theories to our own personal life and derives some very interesting ideas and thoughts. As a business professional, I really enjoyed this combination and it left me thinking about my own career and personal life. The book is structured in three sections:

  1. Finding happiness in your career
  2. Finding happiness in your relationships
  3. Staying out of Jail

The book roped me in and I ended up reading it in an entire session. Anyone interested in business will most likely enjoy this read. Two thumbs up! The book is currently available for just USD 3.99 (Kindle version). Make sure to grab your copy before the offer expires.

Looking forward

Look out for some hopefully exciting posts in the next two weeks. I will be heading back to San Francisco next week to attend OSIsoft’s vCampus Live event. This technical conference focuses on developing powerful analytics applications with the OSIsoft PI server. I am especially excited about the opening day keynote: Stephen Few will be speaking. You will see some notes and photos on this blog soon.

vCampus Life

Copyright – Christoph Papenfuss

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Recommended reading: How to convert complex data into a story

The Analytics Communicator

Analytics professionals need to be communicators. Just being technically proficient is longer enough. It is not enough to slap a report or dashboard together on the go. Rather, we have the responsibility to help the business get information out of their data. This is especially true as data volumes continue to grow.  I wrote about this in a recent blog post.

The question though is how to best do this. Earlier this week, I came across an excellent blog post by web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik. His November 5th post provides a detailed example of how to convert a complex data set into a compelling story. I highly encourage you to spend some time reading this inspiring blog post.

 

Avinash Kaushik

 

 

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Three simple ideas for better software demos

Better software demos

The other day I wrote about lessons for delivering a better software demo. This article ended up being one of the most popular ones in recent times. I have therefore decided to add a few more tips as a solid demo can really make a difference. Likewise a bad software demo can really hurt you and your project. Remember – the first impression is usually the most important one. You therefore have to make sure that you do a great job.

1. Keep it clean

A few weeks ago, I watched a demo. It wasn’t that bad. However, the guy ran it of his own desktop. And what a messy desktop it was. Icons cluttered a photo of him floating in a swimming pool. Oh well. Various apps were open and the person delivering the demo often had a hard time finding the right window. Also, his email program was open. The little Outlook bubbles kept popping up and we could read some of the email subjects (Viagra for sale!). Too bad! This could have been a good demo but the overall impression was anything but positive. You wouldn’t want to sell a dirty car, would you? Before you head out to deliver your next demo make sure to do the following:

    • messy desktop

      Does this look good enough for a customer?

      Close all apps that you don’t need

    • Kill all incoming emails, instant messages or Skype calls
    • Clean up your desktop
    • Choose a professional desktop background (the group photo from your bachelor party is probably not the right choice…)
    • Even easier: run the demo from a clean virtual machine

2. Keep it relevant

Demos need to be short and sweet. Don’t waste time explaining useless stuff. Imagine the car sales person talking about the spare wheel. Not all that exciting, is it? Spending time on irrelevant features can seriously harm you and your message. People might leave thinking your solution is not capable. You won’t believe it – but it’s true. I recently witnessed a person spending 2 minutes showing the audience how to change a password. It was irrelevant and painful to watch (message received: we have basic security). You have to make sure that what you show resonates with your audience and that it has impact. When you prepare for your demo, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What is the business pain of my audience?
    • Which features solve that pain?
    • Does that feature look great on screen?
    • Is it easy to understand?
    • Is this something interesting?

3. Fast forward

Have I mentioned that demos ought to be short and sweet? There are times, though, when it’s hard to stick to that idea. There are processes that may have to run, we might have to complete various ‘boring steps’ etc.. Don’t torture your audience with running through the entire process. It is so easy to loose people’s attention today. A good demo is like a river: It keeps flowing. Consider one of the following alternatives:

better software demo

  • Record the entire demo or parts of it. Recording the entire script allows you to edit out irrelevant steps. You can also enhance a live demo with some video to show those steps in a quick manner (kind of like a timelapse effect).
  • Prepare the irrelevant and lengthy steps before the actual demo. This is possible in many case.
  • Only show the relevant fragments. We don’t always have to show it all. A simple before and after often speaks louder than hundreds of demo minutes
  • Team up with a colleague. Show some slides during the ‘boring’ parts while your colleague advances the demo

Better software demos

Delivering better software demos does not have to be difficult. Follow some of these ideas to improve. It’s worth it. The greatest dashboard will have a hard time getting accepted if the demos really suck.

Good luck!

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Analytics professionals need to be communicators

Are we communicators?

Analyics are an extremely hot topic. While there is a lot of talk about it, too many companies are still failing to reap the true benefits from “bread and butter” tools such as dashboards. It’s safe to say that there is a disconnect: lot’s of talk and excitement, yet little true engagement on the business side. What’s causing the problem? It’s tempting to blame the technology.

The Disconnect

Having worked with many organizations over the past decade, I have come to the conclusion that a majority of the problems are caused by needless complexity and by a maddening drive towards technical excellence. Let’s face it – an analytics solution is only as good as the adoption by the user community. Brilliant technology fails when people don’t know what to do with it. How can we fix this? I think we – the analytics professionals – need to look at ourselves and make some changes to the way we work and engage with the business community. It’s easy and comfortable to stay in a comfortable cocoon of technical talk and optimization. Our objective needs to be to step out of that cocoon and start communicating with the business.

The Communicator

Last weekend, I started reading an excellent book by Tim Elmore. The book is about communication. Tim makes the case that our society requires a different communication approach. In the past, we adored the great orators that would read a carefully scripted speech. Today, we relate to people who deliver messages that connect with us. The author drafts up a comparison between the past and today: public speakers (aka technical experts) vs communicators. When I studied this, it struck me: The content applies to our business analytics profession as well. I have taken the liberty to modify it a bit. Take a few minutes to study the table and to reflect how this might apply to your and your team:

Analytics Professional

Are you a technical professional or a communicator?

Need to change

Let me tell you, this comparison really spoke to me. As analytics professionals, we need to make a serious effort to connect with our audience – the business. That requires us to leave the comfortable cocoon of technical talk. Here is an example: the classic requirements gathering. We interview, we document, we ask for sign-offs. The whole process is technical and it usually doesn’t help the business. It’s a process that was designed to help and protect the IT professional. A communicator on the other hand goes further than just creating a thick document. The communicator goes out of his way to really understand the business. That might require a simple prototype. It might require us to take a personal risk and ask more questions.The end result is a better analytics solution.

Here is a suggestion: Print out this table and take a look at it before you head into that next meeting or before you hand over that new dashboard. Think about your team. Are you a an analytics professional or an analytics communicator?

P.S.: I highly recommend reading Tim Elmore’s book. It’s an excellent read. There are  a ton of exercises and self-assessments that help you improve your personal presentation and communication style. I have read many books about presenting and this is belongs in the category of books that can really have an impact.

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The art of the technical presentation – 5 lessons from Gary Fong

The Technical presentation

As an analytics professional, you often have to show your work to select audiences. This could be a demonstration of a new corporate dashboard at the monthly townhall meeting. It might also be a training class for the operations team or a 1:1 session with the CEO. Regardless of the occasion, you have to make sure that your technical presentation gets the audience excited about your analytics solution. Unfortunately, too many technical presentations go bad. It’s really easy to loose the attention of your audience, if you don’t prepare carefully. The other day I watched a superb technical demo by the famous entrepreneur and photographer Gary Fong. It exhibits a lot of characteristics that you and I should incorporate in our next technical presentation.

The Gary Fong Factor

Take a look at the short video. Gary Fong demonstrates one of his new photo products. Even if you don’t know anything about photography, you will immediately get the idea of his product. Just watch 1-2 minutes.

5 lessons

What’s so special about Gary’s demo. It exhibits a lot of qualities you and I need to incorporate in every technical presentation:

  1. Be enthusiastic: Gary is extremely enthusiastic about his products and it shows. Enthusiasm is contagious. Most photographers want to buy his products after watching one of his demos. However, too many technical presentations are just plain boring. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience: why should you use that analytics solution if your technical leader isn’t excited about it? Show your passion!
  2. Avoid technical language: Notice how simple this short demo is. There are no buzzwords, there is hardly any jargon. Even non-photographers understand his product. Jargon and buzzwords are an excellent way to confuse people. It probably scares the CFO to hear about the configuration of the ODBC connection. Neither does he care about the latest in-memory technology. Make it easy for people to follow you!
  3. Explain the problem: When you deliver a technical presentation, it is critical to explain your audience why they need to change. People don’t like to change. Don’t just jump in and show your shiny technology. Set the background and explain what the problem is that you are trying to combat. Gary does that marvelously. He clearly shows that the current state (i.e. without his products) is problematic. Try to do the same in your next technical presentation.
  4. Show the benefits: Gary doesn’t stop right there. He goes further and stops at certain points to show the benefits of the new approach. He compares the old with the new. He leaves no doubt that the change is worth the effort. This helps the audience make up their mind. Too many demos leave it to the audience to identify the benefits. That’s a risky strategy.
  5. Be quick: Demos are often long and boring. Gary Fong, on the other hand, is quick. He jumps right in and he uses engaging language. There are no slow or boring parts. This is actually one of his longer demos. Most of his video demos run less than 2-3 minutes. This pays off tremendously – you won’t loose your audience.

Practice your technical presentation

Delivering an awesome technical presentation can be extremely rewarding – not only for yourself but also for your audience. Technical excellence of a solution does not automatically translate into enthusiasm by the end users. You have to help them with accepting the new solution. Spend some time to learn and practice these lessons.

If you are interested in this topic, check out one of my earlier posts.

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How to improve your presentations – a simple lesson

Presentation advice

A friend recently challenged me to provide him with my number one tip for improving his presentations. He was looking for that famous ‘low-hanging fruit’ that wouldn’t require too much effort and energy. I didn’t have to think long and hard about that question. In my past job role, I attended many conferences and sat through hundreds of presentations. Unfortunately, a majority of the presentations did not reach their full potential. It wasn’t the content. The speakers were ok in many cases. It was the slides that lowered the impact of those speeches.

Death to Bullets

Around 75% of all the slides you and I get to absorb everyday contain tons of text. Take a look at the example below. And trust me, this is a gentle case.

 

Ugly Powerpoint

The classic Powerpoint slide. Lot’s of bullets and lot’s of reading material

There is a huge problem with this type of slide design: The minute you bring it up on the screen, people will start reading. You immediately loose the attention of your audience. The more words on the screen, the longer the attention gap. It’s a natural human reaction to be drawn to the text. There is nothing you can do. I have seen really good and charismatic speakers struggle to hold the attention of their audience with these type of Powerpoints. And it get’s worse. Once you have read the text, you tend to drift off. Hey….you know the content anyway. Let’s face it – listening is for longer periods of time is hard. Your brain is constantly searching for an easy escape. Don’t believe me? Observe yourself next time you attend a presentation.

The alternative

There is the famous saying: A picture says more than a thousand words. It’s true. Instead of sticking lot’s of text on your slides, try to simplify. Reduce the text. You can try something really simple like this:

Better Powerpoint

It takes less than a minute to create a slide like this.

Or even better – use a simple picture. I am talking about tasteful photographs or graphics. But stay away from cheap cliparts.

eBook Reader

Granted this is nothing fancy. But this slide allows you to grab and hold people’s attention.

Why is this a better approach? There are several reasons why you should consider this:

  • People tend to remember pictures much better than words. You can do a test….see if you can remember the last slide.
  • Your audience doesn’t loose focus. You are the star. They need to listen to you to understand what the presentation is all about.
  • If you use beautiful and meaningful slides, people often look forward to the next set of slides. It literally keeps them engage.
  • You cannot read your slides. Reading a slide is the best way to loose the attention of your audience. Simple Powerpoints on the other hand force you to have a conversation with your audience. You sound natural and you can easily inject stories.

Easier said than done? You can purchase awesome looking stockphotos for less than a dollar today. Services like iStockphoto or Fotolia have amazing collections and their prices are very decent. Even better: Few people know that Microsoft actually offers a huge collection of awesome pictures on their Powerpoint website – for free. Check it out.

Drop those bullets

Want to improve your presentations? Drop your bullets then and develop simple slides. It’s not that difficult.

If you want some advice about how build beautiful slides that have an impact, I highly recommend the following two books:

slide:ology by Nancy Duarte – This book is probably the best one about presentation design. It’s gorgeous and there are lot’s of amazing ideas for designing awesome presentations. This is not necessarily a book that you read from the first page to the last. It’s rather an amazing compendium. I use it when I’m stuck and I need some creative ideas.

Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds – Excellent advice about designing slides. This book is concise and provides the basics for proper and elegant presentation design.

 

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Why blog? 13 reasons to love blogging

Why blog?

Blogging is fun! Yes, it is. I started the Performance Ideas Blog almost two years ago and I would not want to miss that. There were certainly some stretches where I thought about just dropping the project. Blogging regularly requires a lot of discipline and focus. This is especially true when you write the majority of the posts planes, trains, airline lounges and random hotel rooms. Some friend recently asked why I still went ahead and kept on growing this blog. Here are some of my top reasons. If you have asked yourself the question ‘Why blog?’, you might find some inspiration here in this post. Blogging

Why blog? 13 reasons

  1. You need to stay fresh & agile. Blogging frequently requires you to constantly search for topics. This keeps you fresh and agile. Also, you tend to know more than others who don’t put in that effort.
  2. You get to learn many new things. Writing about something requires you to have a deeper understanding about a topic. A successful post looks at various different angles. I therefore often invest time researching ideas. That includes following other blogs, reading more books, attending more conferences. That allows me to learn.
  3. You conquer some fears. Writing about certain topics can be scary. There are some posts where you are not quite sure how people will react. Sometimes there is criticism. But at the end of the day, you just post the stuff and you feel good about not letting your fear stop you.
  4. You get rewarded. Certain posts often generate tons of feedback. It feels awesome to see people sharing your content. It feels even better to receive emails, tweets or comments.
  5. You create new relationships. The Performance Ideas blog has dramatically increased my network. I have met a bunch of fantastic analytics professionals and other bloggers. And these relationships pay off.
  6. You actively build your own brand. Blogging allows you to share your ideas and to actively shape your own brand. Your brand is no longer just determined by who you really are but also by what Google says about you. Blog posts feed and shape your online persona.
  7. You let your creativity flow. Blogging allows me to combine my passion for business, photography and design. I love taking photos for the different posts. Developing posts is definitely a great way to get creative.
  8. You develop (potentially) valuable skills. Running your own blog requires you to learn new and unexpected skills. I use the self-hosted version of WordPress and have taught myself a ton about that platform and social media. While I don’t have any use for those skills in my job, I was able to build my wife a new website for her recent business launch. We developed her presence within half a day. It was fun and Jen was able to save a ton of money (hmmm…she does owe me a dinner!)
  9. You get to do something geeky. Running your blog in a self-hosted environment allows to get really geeky sometimes. You get to configure plug-ins, tune databases and test new functionality. Well, I sometimes enjoy that type of thing.
  10. You stay current with social media and web x.0. Running a successful blog without being involved in social media is almost not possible. This has forced me to dig a lot deeper than I ever thought.
  11. You get market insights. Performance Ideas is a business blog. As such it is an interesting measure of what people are interested in. Some posts receive virtually no traffic whereas others go viral. And that is an excellent indicator of what people care about. I have often used these insights to develop new presentations or to prepare for customer meetings.
  12. You get to feel like a rockstar…sort of. On more than several occasions, people have approached me at conferences and wanted to know if I was ‘the guy from the Performance Ideas blog’….oh man….those moments make you feel like a rockstar….and then reality sets back in….
  13. You develop an valuable repository. In the past, I often lost good ideas. But having a blog allows you to capture everything. You build up a repository of your own thoughts. And that is extremely valuable.

Why blog?

Well, those are just thirteen reasons. I could go on and easily find another twenty or thirty. If you are considering to write your own blog, just get started. Give it a try. Some of my former colleagues and friends also recently started their own blogs and I think they really enjoy it, too.

What are your experiences?

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