“If you’re asked for data, refuse to provide it”—great advice, but not what you think

“If you’re asked for data, refuse to provide it.” Now that’s what I call an attention-getting lede.

At first I thought this LinkedIn post by Avtar Ram Singh, a man I do not know, was about politics. During the recent U.S. presidential transition, the incoming administration asked for lists of federal employees who held views in opposition to their own. You know, about speculative things like climate change. They wanted to know which scientists still believed that their facts trumped (you should pardon the expression) the superior information found elsewhere, like in the Bible. The agencies refused to provide the data to their new overlords. A small victory.

But no, refreshingly, this wasn’t about politics. In the next paragraph, I discovered it was fundamentally about my very favorite subject: Storytelling.

data plus information is a story

Did I say this was about storytelling? This gobbledygook about CTR (Click Through Ratio, if you’re wondering) and conversions?

Yep. Mr. Singh may not realize it, but when he advises people to put data “into the context,” he’s actually saying, “Use data to tell a story.” Not only does a story make the data more useful, as he notes. It also makes it more memorable. And, as I’ve said before and will surely say again, if you don’t want people to remember what you’re telling them, then why bother?

Telling a story with data

Facts don’t stick in people’s minds. But stories do. So turn your 2,000 conversions into a story:

Our Click Through Ratio nearly doubled last month, and our conversion rate more than doubled.

If you need people to have the hard data, hand it to them separately, or put it in a chart next to the narrative. Do not—please, for the love of all that’s good do NOT—do this:

Our Click Through Ratio nearly doubled last month (from 3% to 5.2%), and our conversion rate more than doubled (840 to 2000).

The data points break up the flow of the sentence and make it harder to understand the point. If you must drop in the numbers, try:

Our Click Through Ratio nearly doubled last month, going from 3% last month to 5.2%. Even better, our conversion rate also skyrocketed: 2000 of those clicks converted into paying customers, up from 840 last month.

Or turn the percentage into people:

We’ve been seeing an average of 3 click-throughs for every 100 people who visit our page. But this month, that number rose to 5.2 click-throughs per 100.

Or—since conversions increased by a much higher percentage than CTR, I wonder if the page didn’t have more traffic coming to it. So you might add some further context:

Over XXX,XXX people visited our page last month and 2000 clicked-through to become paying customers. Our CTR of 5.2% is the highest we’ve seen in a while. nearly double last month’s 3%.

Mr. Singh is absolutely right: “If you’re asked for data, refuse to provide it.” Tell a story instead.


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An open letter: Straight talk and business

One more post about the election—but this time with business front and center. Okay?

Thursday, the day after the election results came in, I woke up feeling I had to write something. I wanted to suggest how business leaders could speak honestly with their people about the values of diversity and inclusion.

I published it as an open letter on LinkedIn and I’ll post it here in its entirety, in case you’re not a LinkedIn member. (Wait? You’re not a LinkedIn member? What?)

an open letter to straight white male Christian CEOs

An Open Letter to Straight White Christian Male CEOs

If the title of this post shocks you, I intended it to.

The organizations I work with and the executives I write for would never think of the world in such a narrow way. I’ve been in and around Corporate America for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen a real evolution. I truly believe that most businesses today value inclusivity. So I welcome everyone to read and act on this.

But let’s be real: Some people have a bigger megaphone, just by virtue of who they are. You straight white Christian male CEOs may not have asked for this privilege—in fact, let’s assume you don’t even want it. But since you have it, put it to good use.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many people who aren’t straight white Christian men—including many of your colleagues and probably your clients too—feel unsettled and unsafe. Indeed, reports of violence and harassment of those perceived as “other” have already risen precipitously.

Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other.

As a business leader you have a very important superpower: the power of the bottom line. You can refuse to discriminate in hiring and staffing, even if your client requests it. You can refuse to do business with those who support discrimination. You can move conventions or facilities out of areas that enact discrimination by law or mandate.

If you have fostered an inclusive culture within your organization, thank you. Now you need to carry that culture outside your office walls. In your work with clients. In the ways you and your organization support our communities. As you live your daily life.

If you see behavior that’s incompatible with your values, speak up. Empower your people to report any disrespectful or discriminatory behavior they encounter in the course of their work. Take appropriate action to address it—and talk publicly about what you’ve done.

Lead by word and by action. Speak out wherever and whenever you can. Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other—no matter what religion, national origin, or skin color the “other” has. Or their gender. Or who they love.

Hatred used to thrive in the shadows; it’s now emerging openly, even proudly. We cannot let it become normalized. And you, the straight white Christian men society has anointed as privileged, must take the lead.


Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Wednesday November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.

Genius and Broadcast TV

I rarely watch TV these days, but when I do one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is the CBS procedural Scorpion. It’s like the love child of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, both of which I enjoy—less guiltily. Hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for connection and in all of these shows the characters connect with each other in a wackily familial way that appeals to something deep within me.

Scorpion, as the Season 1 voiceover reminded us with every episode, is based on the life of a “real genius,” Walter O’Brien, who allegedly had the second-highest IQ ever recorded, or some such thing. (Hence the title of this post.)

What I didn’t know until I heard Walter O’Brien interviewed on the invaluable Tim Ferriss podcast is that O’Brien and his confederates at the real-life Scorpion consulting firm conceived of the show as a marketing tool. He figures once the show airs for a decade (it’s going into Season 3 in the fall), his company will be permanently embedded in its prospects’ minds. Try that, Ernst & Young. We’ll call this Option A, and it’s surely the first time anyone has attempted to use a fictional entertainment to market his company and recruit potential employees. Oh wait—unless you count The Apprentice.

Or perhaps (Option B) O’Brien’s bio is a load of, as they say in his native Ireland, malarkey—fluffed and air-brushed to make it look like something exceptional. In that case, the TV show burnishes an imaginary legend. (The comparisons to Donald Trump just keep coming.) It’s based on a lie. But isn’t all fiction?

Option A—O’Brien and company think out of the LinkedIn box to attract the highly specialized kinds of employees they will need as the company grows.  It’s brilliant marketing.

Option B—O’Brien has been dining out on some really good stories (apparently he actually has done high-level hacking work for legitimate clients) and he decides to cash them in for the biggest payday possible. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, and there’s no guarantee any TV show will become a hit; even great ones fail to find an audience (I’m lookin’ at you, The Comeback). But if the show does catch on, O’Brien collects his executive producer fee, rakes in the bucks from international licensing (two seasons in and it’s already airing in 13 countries besides the U.S.), and establishes name recognition forever.

Also brilliant marketing? Maybe. But I’ve seen too many people get caught inflating their credentials. The climb toward the top may be fun, but the fall is never worth it. Perhaps there will be a Trump comparison to be made here too. Stay tuned.