The Criminal Minds Approach to Presenting Data

Like any good couple, my wife (Jess) and I have our shows. There are shows I like. There are shows she likes. There are shows we both like.

For the most part, we do a pretty good job of watching TV together (underrated element of a modern marriage, IMO). But there’s one set of Jess shows I simply cannot get behind –

Murder shows.

Network murder shows.

I don’t know why it’s worse when it’s on CBS or ABC, but it is. CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, you name it. I am out and Jess is in.

What’s most puzzling is her ability to watch someone, like, get stapled to death, then gleefully power off the TV and say “well, it’s been a long day. Time for bed.” Whereas I need to watch videos of butterflies and katydids to get my mind off of what humanity is capable of on a network TV show.

[Related: after the hellacious “Dear Billy” episode of Stranger Things last summer, I spent a full hour watching sting rays and manatees gracefully navigate the Gulf of Mexico]

One of the staples of these murder shows is the female Data Scientist. I’m not sure who decided on this avatar, but it’s consistent:

• They hang out in some back room, away from everyone else
• Dyed hair, often purple or pink, usually in pig tails or similar quirky hairdo
• Heavily tattooed and constantly listening to The Ramones or Black Flag
• They have access to every data set in the world, and can use it to crack codes in a short commercial break

Like so:

There is usually a one-minute segment where Quirky Data Scientist presents her findings to the rest of the team. It always sounds like this:

I started by analyzing this giant data set
Then I looked at all the people in Baltimore who drive a Subaru Impreza
Then I cross-referenced by the people who ordered a Big Mac that day
Therefore the killer is Jeff Distanlo

Go get ‘em, Agent Hotch!

It’s ludicrous…yet holds my attention every time.

And you know what? If you have to present data at your company, or for your keynote, it’s a good template.

It’s also something people screw up all the time. They take too long. They go into too much detail. They walk through a methodology no one in the audience cares about.

If you want to present like Penelope Garcia or Abby or Patterson from Blindspot, you need to make your narrative tight.

• Short sentences
• Easy, imprecise numbers. Round it to 750,000 instead of 752,137
• Avoid decimals unless absolutely necessary
• It needs to be fast and easy to track with. The entire narration should take 45 seconds or less
• Most importantly: the payoff needs to be worth it. The equivalent of revealing the suspect’s name.

If you’re looking for an example that’s not screen-written, look no further than Amy Webb’s TEDx talk “How I hacked online dating.” Specifically, the 41-second segment starting at 1:40.

Her exact words:
Philadelphia has 1.5 million people. I figure about half of that are men, so that takes the number down to 750,000. I’m looking for a guy between the ages of 30 and 36, which was only 4% of the population.

So now I’m dealing with the possibility of 30,000 men. I was looking for somebody who was Jewish, because that’s what I am and that was important to me. That’s only 2.3 percent of the population. I figure I’m attracted to maybe one out of 10 of those men, and there was no way I was going to deal with somebody who was an avid golfer.

So that basically meant there were 35 men for me that I could possibly date in the entire city of Philadelphia.

130 words
8 sentences
41 seconds

Short sentences. Easy, imprecise numbers. All narrated together so the payoff – in this case, a punchline – is worth it.

Said differently: The story leads to the important number.

It would have been easy to give the exact population of Philadelphia (which doesn’t matter). To tell us the official ratio of men to women (which also doesn’t matter). She resisted those urges. Instead, she walked us through the calculations as if she were unraveling a mystery.

And you should too.

Write your next data narrative as a story. Write it again, this time with shorter sentences. Aim for 45 seconds or less. Make the payoff worth it.

Nobody presents data well. Everyone makes it boring. So if you can do this even medium-okay, you’ll stand out.

Try it. Let me know how it goes.


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Metaphorically speaking, a lot of us do the same when we start a speech: we make it all about ourselves. We read our resume to the audience.

Y’all. We don’t need to do that. At best that comes off as braggy; more likely it comes off as insecure. 

Don't be that guy.

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These are stories, hacks, speech critiques and recommendations. I spend an inordinate amount of time writing these.


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