In a recent meeting with a Director I heard a phrase which characterizes one of the primary purposes of data and the use of Excel. He said, “I want to tell a story”. At the end of the day that Executive wished to deliver a message about his organization to various stakeholders. Stakeholders can include board of directors, senior management, external agencies, donors and clients. The message or story must be tailored to the audience, and Microsoft Excel is one of the most convenient tools available to help people tell their organizations story to stakeholders. The following is a general guideline to tailoring a message using Microsoft Excel.
Who is Audience?
The first step in crafting a message with the help of Microsoft Excel is to not use Microsoft Excel. What do I mean by this? A clear understanding of the target audience is needed prior to using this tool.
What do they care about?
Once the audience is understood, a better understanding of the group issues can be compiled. Every stakeholder group has different needs and concerns. For example, a communication to stockholders and employees may be different, due to their different interests. Stockholders are primarily interested in return on their investments, while employees are most interested in things like pay increases and job security, to name a few. The issues and interest of each group must be understood before one can begin telling a “story” with Microsoft Excel.
What is the message?
After the issues of the stakeholders are finalized a message can then be crafted. Very often when people think of crafting a message they simply contemplate on focusing on the “positive” or triumphant story. However, messages related to obstacles and challenges have their place as well. Messages should not simply accentuate the positive, but should be well-rounded , balanced, appropriate to the context. Whatever the final message, the final product in Excel must be quickly communicated. The longer it takes to glean the message, the less successful it is.
How to communicate the message?
After all of those areas are understood, the usage of Excel can begin. There are many tools available in Excel to begin crafting a story. The following is a short sample list of Excel tools and techniques which can be used to begin to tell a story:
· Sort – This simple tool allows a user to quickly arrange rows and rows of data by class. The classification system can range from numerical to alphabetical. This is arguably one of the most frequently used tools to begin to create information from data.
· Filter – In the world of Chemistry a filter is a porous material that allows small particles to go through while large particles are left behind. A filter in Microsoft Excel works the same way. It excludes data and only includes what someone wants to see. Using a filter can help the storyteller focus the attention of the audience on important materials.
· Logical functions – These functions are the basis for many financial models and scenario building. Logical functions essentially provide direction to formulas and functions if certain criteria’s are met. For example if the number of customers exceed 200 then stop marketing campaign. This type of intelligence can be built into formulas to help business owners and professionals make decisions much quicker. With the help of logical functions, stories and alternative scenarios can be told to key stakeholders in real time.
· Rank – This function is akin to sorting with one added benefit. This function ascribes a level in the form of a number to text or numbers. The added benefit here is the numbers do not have to go through the sorting process.
· Tables – Another method of telling an organization’s story is using short summary tables. Summary tables, if created properly, draw attention to important information. In some cases It is also a good practice to couple summary tables with charts in case more details are required.
· Charts – Employing the use of a chart is arguably one of the best ways to communicate an organization’s message. Many people are more captivated by a photograph than pure numbers. Using stand alone charts or combinations of various charts is a great way to tell an organization’s story in a pictorial way. Very often for clients we create financial models with graphical summaries in the form of charts.
· Key metrics – Key indicators are everywhere in our society. The cars we drive have indicators related to speed, gas consumption, and tire pressure. Our economy is measured by the unemployment rate, job creation, and household income to name a few. In the same way an organization should have similar indicators specific to that industry or business. Many organizations may track profit margins, liquidity, solvency or cash flow to name a few indicators. Those indicators can be used to quickly communicate to stakeholders improvements in various areas.
Everyone likes a good story. That is why many consume books, movies and re-tell current events. One element of a good story is that it communicates quickly and clearly a message. Using Microsoft Excel is a great way for businesses to begin to tell stories in a succinct way.