How to explain analytics to decision makers


Explaining analytics is essentially a sales process, says Jeff Zeanah, President of Z Solutions, Inc. Early in his 21-year career as an analytic consultant he took the advice of a colleague who said, "The only reason you would ever fail at this is if you do not recognize you have to sell it over and over. We are all in the sales business."

Since that time, Zeanah has continued to refine his process for explaining his analytics results to executives and decision makers. Speaking to a packed room of attendees at Analytics 2012 in Las Vegas, Zeanah first described four important realities:

  1. We live in a non-quantitative world. For example, Zeanah cites a completely inaccurate quote from a reputable investment program that stated,  "Facebook trades at 70 percent of what it's worth." You can find hundreds of similar examples in the news every day.
  2. Most executives do not like statistics. "It was taught to them in business school in a horrible manner and that hatred has been reinforced over and over," says Zeanah.
  3. Decision making is not all logical.  "Business decisions are hard," says Zeanah. "There is not usually a clear answer. Gut instinct is honored and often should be."
  4. Absorbing new information is change, and change is hard. This, explains Zeanah, is the most important reality.  He insists, "You are in the change management business. You are not in analytics business. Analytics is merely the tool you’re going to use to make change."
Zeanah does not advise being idealistic and trying to change those realities. Instead, he advises analysts to follow these four tips, which follow from the above realities:
  1. Recognize that numbers are hard and even analysts make mistakes. Use graphs and repeat information as often as needed.
  2. Use business terms, not statistical terms. Take this to the extreme. You can say average, but do not talk about the mean. If you have to use a statistical term, preface it with a layman's explanation first by saying something like, "This is a graph of two variables. You can start to see a pattern here between the variables. This is what we call a correlation.”
  3. Design presentations not to show what you found but to help your audience find it with you. Show the charts and explain what they mean until the decision is obvious in your audience's mind. Help them come to the decision themselves so that it is their decision, not yours.
  4. Avoid presenting new information cold, especially in front of a crowd. Use foreshadowing, provide information periodically in one-on-one conversations and diligently try to share information beforehand with everyone before you present formally. Tricks for doing this include calling ahead and saying, “I’m not so sure about this," or "Let me go over this with you, or "Can you fill in a detail for me?” Again, Zeanah says you have to lead them down the path to the decision, and doing that in an iterative fashion makes it easier.

If you follow these four tips, you will help your audience discover the results for themselves. In fact, says Zeanah, by the time you get to the end of presenting your results, you should be able to say, "I really don't have to show you the last two slides since you've already come to a logical conclusion."


About Author

Alison Bolen

Editor of Blogs and Social Content

Alison Bolen is an editor at SAS, where she writes and edits content about analytics and emerging topics. Since starting at SAS in 1999, Alison has edited print publications, Web sites, e-newsletters, customer success stories and blogs. She has a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from Ohio University and a master’s degree in technical writing from North Carolina State University.


  1. I have such difficulty sometimes in selling my results to executives in the public sector. They hear the results, but they don't HEAR them. Resulting decisions often leave me scratching my head and wondering if I could have improved my 'sales pitch'. These 4 tips suggest the answer is: yes.

    Very seldom does a post resonate with me so much that I have to print a hardcopy to have it by my side at all times. This is one of those posts.

    Thank you!

    • Alison Bolen

      You would have really enjoyed Jeff Zeanah as a speaker, Jared. It was hard to capture his humor and presence in the room, but he was definitely a known favorite at the confernece. If you get a chance to meet him or take his classes, I would highly recommend it.

  2. Excellent article. I've been working with this problem, fairly successfully, throughout my career but I've never tried to encapsulate what it was that makes it work for me. This not only does that, it's added a couple of new thoughts. I particularly like the quote "You are in the change management business. You are not in analytics business..."

    • Alison Bolen

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I think the best speakers (and writers, actually) do what you mention here: succinctly encapsulate a lot of what we already know - but havent expressed - and then add a few additional insights.

  3. Pingback: Explaining analytics with Jeff Zeanah

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