By Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. Storytelling with Data. Wiley.

I have always been drawn to the space where mathematics and business intersect. My educational background is mathematics and business, which enables me to communicate effectively with both sides—given that they don’t always speak the same language—and help them better understand one another. I love being able to take the science of data and use it to inform better business decisions. Over time, I’ve found that one key to success is being able to communicate effectively visually with data.

I initially recognized the importance of being skilled in this area during my first job out of college. I was working as an analyst in credit risk management (before the subprime crisis and hence before anyone really knew what credit risk management was). My job was to build and assess statistical models to forecast delinquency and loss. This meant taking complicated stuff and ultimately turning it into a simple communication of whether we had adequate money in the reserves for expected losses, in what scenarios we’d be at risk, and so forth. I quickly learned that spending time on the aesthetic piece—something my colleagues didn’t typically do—meant my work garnered more attention from my boss and my boss’s boss. For me, that was the beginning of seeing value in spending time on the visual communication of data.

After progressing through various roles in credit risk, fraud, and operations management, followed by some time in the private equity world, I decided I wanted to continue my career outside of banking and finance. I paused to reflect on the skills I possessed that I wanted to be utilizing on a daily basis: at the core, it was using data to influence business decisions.

I landed at Google, on the People Analytics team. Google is a data-driven company—so much so that they even use data and analytics in a space not frequently seen: human resources. People Analytics is an analytics team embedded in Google’s HR organization (referred to at Google as “People Operations”). The mantra of this team is to help ensure that people decisions at Google—decisions about employees or future employees—are data driven. This was an amazing place to continue to hone my storytelling with data skills, using data and analytics to better understand and inform decision making in spaces like targeted hiring, engaging and motivating employees, building effective teams, and retaining talent. Google People Analytics is cutting edge, helping to forge a path that many other companies have started to follow. Being involved in building and growing this team was an incredible experience.

The big turning point for me happened when we were building an internal training program within People Operations at Google and I was asked to develop content on data visualization. This gave me the opportunity to research and start to learn the principles behind effective data visualization, helping me understand why some of the things I’d arrived at through trial and error over the years had been effective. With this research, I developed a course on data visualization that was eventually rolled out to all of Google.

The course created some buzz, both inside and outside of Google. Through a series of fortuitous events, I received invitations to speak at a couple of philanthropic organizations and events on the topic of data visualization. Word spread. More and more people were reaching out to me—initially in the philanthropic world, but increasingly in the corporate sector as well—looking for guidance on how to communicate effectively with data. It was becoming increasingly clear that the need in this space was not unique to Google. Rather, pretty much anyone in an organization or business setting could increase their impact by being able to communicate effectively with data. After acting as a speaker at conferences and organizations in my spare time, eventually I left Google to pursue my emerging goal of teaching the world how to tell stories with data.

Over the past few years, I’ve taught workshops for more than a hundred organizations in the United States and Europe. It’s been interesting to see that the need for skills in this space spans many industries and roles. I’ve had audiences in consulting, consumer products, education, financial services, government, health care, nonprofit, retail, startups, and technology. My audiences have been a mix of roles and levels: from analysts who work with data on a daily basis to those in non-analytical roles who occasionally have to incorporate data into their work, to managers needing to provide guidance and feedback, to the executive team delivering quarterly results to the board.

Through this work, I’ve been exposed to many diverse data visualization challenges. I have come to realize that the skills that are needed in this area are fundamental. They are not specific to any industry or role, and they can be effectively taught and learned—as demonstrated by the consistent positive feedback and follow-ups I receive from workshop attendees. Over time, I’ve codified the lessons that I teach in my workshops.

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