Yet another WoSR blog post

Annie has already shared her thoughts on our visit and her talk about collaboration at Women of Silicon Roundabout – you can check it out here

WoSR was a very broad conference, with topics ranging from the personal (overcoming impostor syndrome) to the technical (machine learning and its place in business) and the strategic (a track dedicated to founders). Of course, these all interlink and overlap, and in this post I’d like to highlight three talks that I particularly enjoyed – with “influencing” as a common theme. From planning your influencing strategy, via finding your voice, to crafting a data story: this is all about telling your best story to the best-placed people in order to grow your business (and so much more).


Lessons in complex sales from Afghanistan

In this fast-paced, high-energy talk, Emma Dunton (Applied Influence Group) explained how she and her colleagues transfer their influencing skills from the military battlefields in the Helmand province to those trying to close complex sales in the corporate world. 

She defines a business challenge as ‘develop[ing] large, repeatable deals that add strategic value to your customers’. The human part of the business challenge then is the influence challenge: how to speak to the individual motivation of those individuals who can help you make your business grow. Rather than doing this blindly, they break up the influence challenge into four parts (strategy – tactics – execution – review). 

At the strategy level, there are a number of influence questions to be resolved. Emma explained how “influence mapping” can be used to answer a key strategy-level question: whom to influence and how? 

There are two stages to influence mapping. In the first stage, the team sits together and maps the relevant people on concentric circles, together with their relationships. In the middle, you put the person central to resolving the business challenge, with others in the outer circles depending on their ability to directly change the situation at hand.  Next, all the team members individually plot the players from the circles onto a square with axes “their impact” and “my influence”. This allows you to find a path to the central person to influence, and who in the team is best-placed to initiate this path. The key is to figure out who can influence on behalf of your team. Going through this exercise might reveal some unknown unknowns about the situation at hand – blanks that you’ll want to fill in!

Figure: Fictional example of someone (X) needing to influence their future mother-in-law over the seating arrangements, which she is currently blocking because she doesn’t want to sit at the same table as her ex-husband. This places her in the bullseye on the left. She has a very good relationship with their future spouse, a very bad one with the ex-husband and an ok-ish one with the groom’s brother. On the right hand side, X has low influence over all the future in-laws, but luckily can get their future spouse to influence their future mother-in-law on their behalf.


I guess that this kind of influence mapping is what politicians and other influencers (not in the Instagram meaning of the word) do intuitively. However, formalising the process has obvious advantages in a business setting; or indeed for anyone who isn’t a natural schemer. It did leave me wondering what more AIG and other influencing gurus have up their sleeve.

Going on my to-do list: read more about influencing. 


Should anyone listen to you? 

After you’ve settled on a strategy of whom to influence, you have to figure out how to influence them. Storytelling is a big part of this. As Christianne Davies and Dan Leatherdale from AGL  said: a story is an idea wrapped in emotions. They touched on two themes:

  • To convince people, you need a good story
  • Even the best story will only lead to success if you deliver it with the right voice, in the right environment

The last theme was illustrated by three stories of clients of theirs. What they had in common: they faced a problematic situation, in which they suffered a loss of identity (no longer being the CEO who effortlessly delivers, being caught in a very public affair, …) after which they had to reinvent themselves – or rather, they had to find their authentic voice again, in order to function properly. Without an authentic voice, your story gets lost. With it, you can express yourself in a way that lets you connect to others in order to deliver the best possible outcome. So even though authenticity takes curiosity and self-reflection and maybe some painful processes, it is essential to your success as a leader, as a business person, and as a human being.

Figure: Someone who literally has to find her authentic voice. Photo by Max Morse for TechCrunch TechCrunch [CC BY 2.0].


As to the story itself, three simple principles were put forward:

  1. Be simple, before being clever (make sure you plan your key messages and don’t succumb to the curse of knowledge)
  2. Make people feel, not just think (through a proper storyline, the right metaphors, and the right level of abstraction)
  3. Talk with people, not at them (e.g. through positioning yourself in the group, or employing playful elements to activate people’s instinct to cooperate).

They had a great presentation, which (and this is a sure way to win my heart) was wrapped up in a booklet they handed out at the end, which contains their core message and some mini-worksheets. 

Going on my to-do list: use the worksheets in that lovely booklet.


Keeping it simple: telling convincing stories with data

As a data science company, we deliver insights derived from data and the models we build. Time and again, we sit together and try to find the most impactful way for these insights to be presented. It’s no wonder then, that my colleague, Katherine, and I were both excited to attend Tableau’s presentation about storytelling with data. 

Rafi Zelikowsky started off with a Venn diagram that illustrates how data, narrative, and visualisation need to work together in order to affect change:

Figure taken from Brent Dykes Forbes, Adventures in data story telling.


She gave some examples of excellent data stories, and explained why they worked: 

  1. They kept it simple
  2. They force the audience to pay attention by using compelling and/or interactive visuals
  3. They make sure the audiences cares by giving enough context


These are abstract principles, and what made Rafi’s talk really valuable was pointing out the technical tools (colour, chart type, tooltips with text …) we have at our disposal to implement them. One of the examples she discussed is the award-winning “Iraq’s bloody toll” chart, which uses a reversed bar chart in red to evoke the dripping of blood. On its head, and with a more neutral colour, a different story can be told. 

Figure: From Infoworld: Lies, damn lies and statistics


As in the AGL presentation, she zoomed in on what makes a story: there are characters, facing a challenge, there are some insights, there is a resolution of the challenge, and this is all bound together in a rising/falling story arc. Since data stories are stories too, we should apply the same principles when developing them. 

Going on my to-do list: move from a data-viz mindset to a data-story one.


Last but not least

As you can imagine, this post covers only a few of the excellent talks I attended. And with so many parallel tracks on offer, I had to make some heart-wrenching choices about which ones to attend.

Going on my to-do list: by next year, learn how to split myself in two, maybe three.

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