4 Principles for Communicating Institutional Data to Broad Audiences
The problem and hook:
Institutional research officers live in an interesting world. We have a mission that is rooted in data stewardship; however, we are often required to translate that data into public- facing reports for a variety of audiences. Often, the audience that can best act on our data is not a team of data specialists. And for many us, working with an audience of student-facing staff or faculty is a cherished opportunity to impact the service mission of our institution. Seeing our data translate into action and, ultimately, student success is what the IR role is all about.
However, in its first iterations, data on retention, degree attainment, enrollment, or any other topic require translation. We may understand IPEDS cohorts or our state’s definition of optimal time to degree completion, but faculty teaching in these programs likely do not. At the very least, if the terminology is familiar, the details require translation. If you have a new discovery about first-time entering degree-seeking students, but your audience only hears “students,” then your point will not have the same meaning. At worst, this could create misinformation and incorrect assumptions about your student body.
What’s more, we often bring a variety of tools to a presentation. Displays in Prezi or dashboards using products like Tableau can feel like an engaging change from the PowerPoints of old, but how much of your information stays with your audience past the initial meeting? What may be exciting for us could be overwhelming or less clearly valuable for others.
So, how do we communicate institutional research data to a broader audience? Four principles are worth keeping in mind.
Simplicity. Assume your audience is intelligent. You do not need to force a cute acronym or add complexity to a presentation for the sake of engagement. Have a goal in mind for your presentation and exclude anything that deviates from meeting that goal. If it is about degree completions, avoid discussing retention unless you can describe the relationship in direct terms—for example, “every year since 2010, when retention has increased by 5%, transfers have decreased.”
You’re still allowed to be excited about your work! A strong presentation will lead to additional conversations, and you can share your data in greater detail during Q&A or in conversations with individuals who show interest.
Clarity. Simple and clear are similar ideas but they differ in important ways. As you prepare, balancing these elements is crucial. We want to remove jargon and present distinct ideas one at a time. This is both simple and clear. However, if our audience needs the definition of a key term, or to understand why your data impacts student success, some additional detail is needed to maintain clarity.
Your presentation style should support clarity as well, from visuals and interactive segments to deliverables you might require for assessment. Minimizing clutter is important. Repeat your key point, but avoid unnecessary duplication. There are times to read the text on your slides, but an IR presentation is not one of them. In an IR role, you may address issues related to accreditation, compliance, or technology where a more deliberate approach is necessary. But when presenting data, your conclusions should stand out and speak for themselves whenever possible.
Value. It is easy to understand why this element is important. If your audience sees your presentation as useful, they will engage and put the information to use. For a data-informed presentation, this can be especially true. The headline of your presentation may have clear importance—like “how to increase enrollment this fall”—but educators have heard similar presentations their entire careers. Yours should have apparent value. Show how the audience can focus on a particular form of outreach that has proven to attract recruits to their program.
Don’t ask a broad audience to be guinea pigs. If you have data resources or online tools to promote, pilot them with a dedicated group and then show the larger audience that it works. If another school has had success using a similar strategy, show why that school is a valid model. You need both a core of strong supporters and a larger number of individuals who are willing to show their students the new interactive resources, show up for a later event, or make other modest contributions. And to engage the most people, value must be apparent.
Action. Take your next presentation, big email, or committee meeting agenda—whatever immediately comes to mind when you read this—and ask if it is simple, clear, and valuable to the audience. If you stop right now, even mentally, and do this brief exercise, see if you make any changes.
If you took even a few seconds to apply these ideas, then you may decide this article was worth your time. You are more likely to remember the article and use these concepts again. And that is the final concept: Your presentation should include an action. That does not have to be a group exercise in the middle of a meeting. It could be something your audience takes away and is encouraged to send to you later. While your presentation should show value, the action should itself be valuable by creating or improving something the audience will use.
I hope these concepts will help you reach a broader audience. For me, success has come from assuming that my audience is intelligent and diverse—open to new ideas but above gimmicks, and approaching their work from a variety of perspectives. That is true for students, staff, faculty, and the public. By approaching our audience with respect and deliberate presentation, IR officers can prove our ability to lead with data rather than simply presenting data.
Michael Lejman is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Arkansas State University Mid-South. He holds a Ph.D. in history, which he taught before becoming a specialist in data science, accreditation, and higher ed policy.