Explaining Data Quality to Third Graders, Upper Management, and Other Non-Experts

Data quality is very important. But that doesn’t always mean it is clear to everyone. In this blog article, I’d like to offer some strategies for discussing it with all the less-technical people in your life – ranging from your boss to your children.

Our field has a terminology all its own, not to mention the underlying technology behind it. Unfortunately, for some people terms like API sound more like the name of a hot new crime drama (“API – Las Vegas”), and things like SOAP and REST are about showering and going to bed. Worse, sometimes these are the very same people who control your budget for data quality. So let’s look at some strategies for reaching them better:

Start with terminology. Lose the acronyms and the tech-speak. For example, an API becomes “capabilities that are embedded in our marketing automation platform,” or simpler yet “plug-in tools that add value.” A good way to think about this is how you would describe something to a third grader: figure that out, and you are a long way towards describing it to your upper management, or other non-experts. Use words of two syllables or less where possible, stick to plain English, and never stop trying to simplify and summarize what you are saying.

Work backwards from benefits. Who cares about things like JSON? You do, of course, if you’re a programmer. But your boss might too, if he or she realizes that standard output formats make it easier to integrate the latest data quality tools with your current automation platforms. You will always have more success selling the idea THAT something is important if you can articulate WHY it is important.

Get out of the weeds. When the World Wide Web became big in the 1990s, some people saw it as a protocol for transferring information between computers. Others saw it as a tool that could enable everything from e-commerce to a world of information on demand. (And still others couldn’t explain it to people at all!) In much the same way, your ability to start with the big picture of data quality adds depth and credibility to whatever you are presenting.

Use analogies and metaphors. A tool like Address Validation makes more sense to people when you can describe it as a filter that keeps bad data out. Likewise, geocoding is often best described visually on a map. These are just two examples of how putting things in everyday terms open people’s minds to what you are saying.

From technical data to telling stories

There is one other important reason for learning to describe technology in human terms – it builds your skills as a good storyteller, and in turn, a better expert. We naturally think in terms of stories, and your ability to weave a good one often makes you stand out as a leader. Think back to some of the most influential speeches you have heard, on television or in person, and I’ll bet that a good story was at the heart of them.

The reality is that, no matter how technical we are, we are all salespeople: every single one of is in the business of selling ideas to other people. Learning to communicate these ideas well to non-experts can become an important part of our professional toolkit, and ultimately help us accomplish more of our goals as technology experts.

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