Sarah Lichtner

Over the past few years, I’ve worked on a number of projects that required synthesizing large amounts of data to develop communications materials that convey key messages clearly and accurately.

While the kinds and amount of data, topic areas, and intended audience of each communications piece varied, each project involved using the following four steps to produce effective communications pieces from large pools of data:

  1. Assess the accuracy of your data – Whether you’re mining the internet, interpreting a 100-page technical report, analyzing user-reported demonstration data, or summarizing workshop findings, it’s important to ask questions about your data. Do your sources provide conflicting information or information that is contrary to what you expected? If so, do some additional digging to resolve these issues and exclude any outliers or unreliable sources. Consistent data is critical to develop a final communications piece with a convincing argument.
  2. Analyze what the data says – Now that you know your data is as accurate as possible, it’s time to organize it into logical categories. What are the main buckets of information you are dealing with? Do you have both qualitative and quantitative information? Once you have a better understanding of the depth and breadth of your data, you can more easily summarize the key points from each data grouping.
  3. Determine what is most important to your audience – It’s easy to summarize all the data you’re working with, but some pieces of data are more important to your audience than others. Were any of your key points surprising or new? Try to cut your key points in at least half by asking yourself what is meaningful and why each point matters. If you can’t come up with an answer, it’s likely that key point shouldn’t be given emphasis in your communications piece either, or perhaps doesn’t need to be included at all.
  4. Identify the most meaningful format for presenting your data – To increase the effectiveness of your communications piece, this step should really be on your mind throughout the entire data analysis process. It’s important to determine what communications format will be most useful to your audience so your communications piece inspires action instead of just sitting on a shelf. Is your audience likely to physically carry an executive summary or fact sheet with them from one customer site to another? Are they likely to remove the pages or chapter from a report that most relate to their research? The purpose of the information should determine the format of your piece. And of course, don’t forget that we live in a very visual age. Take my colleague Lindsay Pack’s advice on how to use visual cues to best communicate complex topics.

Effective data analysis requires doing the leg work so no one else needs to get bogged down by the data. Your audience won’t have the time to struggle to determine what information is most important; it’s your job to interpret the data for them.

Here are a few examples of projects where I employed the steps above to effectively communicate large amounts of data:

  • Communicating Comparative Data on Propane Tank Level Monitoring Systems: Based on a 130-page technical report, we worked with the Propane Education & Research Council to develop a four-page executive summary for propane marketers seeking to compare 13 commercially available remote tank level monitoring systems.
  • Supporting NETL Peer Reviews: Nexight staff has supported nine expert peer reviews of National Energy Technology Laboratory programs. For each one, we have used notes from a week-long meeting and electronic comments from up to nine reviewers to develop two 100-page reports that synthesized the reviewers’ feedback into concise, technically accurate, and actionable summaries.
  • Defining Opportunities of Materials and Manufacturing Innovation:  We synthesized the findings from five workshops with 100 materials science and engineering experts into the 130-page Innovation Impact Report, which identifies 54 breakthrough opportunities for materials and manufacturing innovation.
  • Analyzing Performance Data from Demonstrations of Propane-Fueled Technologies: Just last month, we completed two reports that summarize more than 500 sets of user-reported data from demonstrations of propane-fueled agriculture and landscaping equipment.