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Tony Boobier


Is Your Actionable Insight Limited by Your Communication Skills?

Why data leaders need to master words as well as statistics

Published: Thursday, December 22, 2022 - 12:02

Does your use of probabilities confuse your audience? Sometimes even using numbers can be misleading. The notion of a 1-in-a-100-year flood doesn’t prevent the possibility of flooding occurring in consecutive years. This description is no more than a statistical device for explaining the likelihood of flooding occurring.

Similarly, when we check the news for weather conditions and are told that there is a 90-percent chance of rain, this only means that on days with similar metrological conditions, it rained on 90 percent of them. As with the flooding comparison, it’s simply a mathematical method that expresses the likelihood of an incident occurring.

Gamblers are adept at playing the odds. In poker, rather than thinking that getting three-of-a-kind is “unlikely,” they know that the chance of that happening is about 5 percent. If two cards are dealt and are a “pair,” the chance increases to 12 percent. Though both probabilities are relatively small, the difference between them is enough to influence a gambler’s decision at the table.

It might feel strange to apply such probabilistic decisions (in both life and business) where data might be incomplete. The reality is that we’re seldom faced with decisions about events with a binary outcome—one which will definitely happen or definitely not happen. Rather, there’s a whole range of probabilities in between. To describe these as being “likely” or “unlikely” fails to capture the nuances of a situation. Also, both those expressions mean different things to different people.

Is your language communicating more certainty than is warranted?

Precisely allocating probability to situations that are both complex and uncertain can be difficult. At best, you might only be able to compare them to similar situations you’ve experienced before. Perhaps this is when intuition and experience can add greater color and prevent what might otherwise be a black-and-white data canvas.

In a complex business, in an increasingly volatile environment, there’s seldom any certainty but even less tolerance for ambiguity. Using words alone to describe a possible outcome leaves the door open to misinterpretation.

Perhaps there is no simple answer. Those who insist on data being the only truth need to understand that, when making predictions, it’s seldom that any absolute certainty attaches. They need to understand the potential ambiguity of the statistics. On the other hand, the wordsmiths-at-heart must also understand that words alone, such as the phrase "fairly high," can be interpreted differently.

How are you using words and numbers to educate your business?

Truly data-driven leaders need to be sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of using both words and data. As they communicate potential outcomes, they must appreciate the uncertainty and imprecision of both. But they also need to be able to communicate such imprecision effectively, using words and numbers to provide that clarity of understanding.

First published Nov. 15, 2022, on Customer Insight Leader.


About The Author

Tony Boobier’s picture

Tony Boobier

Tony Boobier is an AI and analytics expert based in Bearsted, England. He is the author of four books.