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Data Needs Context

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Is your presentation data meaningful? It’s all about context. Numbers are meaningless on their own. Jude Barak shows us how to share our data in the most effective way.

Every entrepreneur and manager knows how important it is to make the right business decisions. The question is, based on data, how do we make the right business decisions or how do we get our audiences to make the decision we want them to make?

I often come across this concept when I work with entrepreneurs. These businesspersons are required to present data and information to investors or potential partners who usually decide on-the-spot whether an investment or partnership is interesting enough, thus eligible for further consideration.

Working with these entrepreneurs, whether it is on a presentation for investors, a report, or a document, I recognize time and again the challenges they face as they try to transform their personal knowledge and communicate information for people to use, and make fast decisions.

Different people make different decisions and come to different conclusions. However when data is missing, presented inappropriately, or information is ambiguous, decision-making becomes even more challenging and may not yield the desired results.

In my previous article, How to Engage the Audience When Your Data is the Story, I wrote about data being the story’s hero and how to engage the audience. In this article I will focus on the context.


Data needs context

We all know that in mathematics 1+1 always equals 2. This algebraic sentence will always be true. But there is a difference between numbers and data. A datum is not necessarily just a number.

Let’s take a closer look at this concept: 1 as a standalone number has no meaning other than being a number, and therefore not a datum. However, when numbers are presented in a certain context they tell a story we can relate to, learn from, draw conclusions, get insight, and make decisions. When the same data is presented in different contexts interpretation, conclusions, insight, and decisions, will most likely not be the same.

Let’s take this a little further:

A linguistic context

The word “I” can have many interpretations. Once we pair it with the word “want”, namely, “I want” it is much clearer, but still much is left for interpretation. However, when I say “I want to eat”, the meaning is perfectly clear. We now understand the nature of decisions required: foods to choose from, time, place, etc.

A numeric context

The same logic works for numbers. What is the meaning of the numeral 3,185,996,155? No doubt it is a big number. Does it mean anything? And when we say: in 2015 there were 3,185,996,155 internet users, does this mean anything? Does this information tell us something other than the fact that there were many internet users? But if we add more information, e.g., in 2015 the world’s population was estimated at 7,336,435,000 among them 3,185,996,155 were internet users.

These two sentences make up a story from which we can learn. For example, online businesses can conclude from this little story that half of the world’s population is not a target audience for them. On the other hand, if you’re in infrastructure development you have just discovered that the population that was not a target audience for the online business is the same population that needs your services. A number that was merely a numeral has now become meaningful in terms of future marketing plans.



Here’s another example: at the end of the year, business reports show a $10,000 profit. Theoretically, a five digit profit is quite impressive. But will it be as impressive if we knew that the annual turnover was $100,000,000? Moreover, if a business yields an annual profit of $10,000 after investing $100,000 is it considered successful? The answer is probably yes if the business is in its first or second year, and most likely not if we’re talking about the fourth or fifth…

Data is always contextual and the term ‘profit’ determines by definition a ratio between income and costs, but alone it is meaningless. Only in conjunction with other words such as investment, turnover etc., do we get information that can be used to make business decisions.

To conclude, when it comes to decision-making processes, we must determine what we need or want to know and also ask questions, since without context data is not only meaningless but is also useless.

Now that we’re aware of the dialectic process and the important role context plays in both linguistics and business, thereby a different combination of words, phrases, sentences, and numbers create different meanings, it is easy to understand how in business 1+1 can easily equal 3. When two entrepreneurs join forces and each brings their expertise to the table, they can come up with a new idea or product that is better than their former enterprises – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Data’s relational dialectics and data visualization

Until about 10 years ago the amounts of data were not that substantial, therefore it was relatively simple to understand relationships between data components. Within a decade the world has become overwhelmed with masses of data and information, some very important while others completely redundant.

In a world rich with stimuli, and as amounts of data and information grow in the same proportion that time, patience, and attentiveness become scarce, it is extremely challenging to purify the essence and put together the precise ‘sentence’ or ‘phrase’ in the right context that will not only create a comprehensive message but will also achieve the desired outcome.

Entrepreneurs who want to persuade investors or potential partners to join their enterprise or invest in their venture usually have large amounts of information. Yet, they seldom know what to do with it. How do they write their story to get investors on board? How do they present the data and information in the very short time they have, so that decision-makers will perceive the information and idea, draw conclusions, and ultimately make the decisions they had in mind? The answer is:

Information and the message must be communicated and relayed using storytelling techniques and accompanied with visuals.

One picture is worth a thousand words is a century-old idiom. Think about children’s books with short sentences and large pictures. Even if you don’t know how to read you can still understand the story. Till today I remember some of the pictures in the first books I read as a child. Same goes for cookbooks. How many times were you tempted to try a recipe because of the picture?

This expertise is called Data Visualization or data viz in short. Principles are simple though must be followed carefully:

  1. Focus on the presentation’s purpose and context.
  2. Ask the right questions – what will interest the audience? What is the message you want to communicate? What is the desired conclusion or outcome you want to achieve?
  3. What is relevant?
  4. Build the right relationships between information components.
  5. Visualize the data and information – putting them in the right context and making the picture comprehensive yet obvious at a glance.

Now that we know how to tell a good story using data as the hero, and also how to use data and information in the right context, the last part is the presentation of the data – a topic I will discuss next time. Make sure to check back and get the whole picture.

Jude Barak

Jude Barak

Owner and Manager at ExcelLeader
As an expert with broad experience in data collection & analysis Jude understands that presentation of data is like the art of mosaic, kind of story that the viewer must decipher and understand quickly. Summarizing and Big Data seem to be opposites. How is it possible to present so much in such a short slide? Finding the best answer to this question is what I like to do, and presenting the outcome is my passion.
Jude Barak
Jude Barak
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jim Harvey

    14th March 2020 at 4:55 pm

    Lovely post Jude. Excellent article.

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