Being able to handle difficult stakeholders is a key skill for anyone in business, and that increasingly includes data scientists. Being able to explain, justify and defend the results of your analysis in the face of sceptical or even downright hostile questions is crucial.
Sceptical or hostile reactions may come from those both inside and outside your organisation. This is especially true if your analysis suggests the need for change, because that could threaten people’s jobs, position or power within the organisation. Fortunately, there are things that you can do that will help you to handle and even forestall objections.
These tips apply whether you are presenting analytical results in person, or via a written document.
Understand your brief and manage expectations in advance
Sometimes problems can arise from a mismatch in expectations, especially if that means that stakeholders think that you have not fulfilled your brief.
For example, if an executive is expecting you to use AI techniques, but you have used a simpler alternative, that may be enough for them to reject your findings out of hand—especially if the results are unexpected.
When you are given your brief, ask questions and be clear about what is expected of you. At that point, if you foresee problems, it is worth explaining carefully what you can deliver within the constraints. You should also go back if things change during the project.
Use the military technique of ‘bottom line up front’
One problem that can arise when you are dealing with a hostile or sceptical audience is that you may be interrupted before you can get to your point.
This is particularly challenging if your audience is senior executives in your organisation, because you don’t want to risk being rude and ignoring questions. However, it is also very frustrating for both you and your audience to have to keep saying ‘I’m coming onto that next’. This is difficult if you are trying to use a narrative style of presentation, to walk your audience through the decision process.
One technique that gets around this is the military approach of ‘bottom line up front’ or BLUF. In this approach, you set out your conclusion or recommendation first, then provide the evidence to back it up. You don’t have to use the words ‘bottom line’ or ‘bottom line up front’: you could say ‘summary’, ‘conclusion’ or ‘recommendations’ instead if that fits better with your organisation’s culture. You can also use this technique in emails.
Plan your presentation to focus on facts and evidence
It is much harder to argue with facts that are clearly supported by evidence, even if you don’t like the results.
A presentation that focuses on facts is therefore harder to refute or reject. When you think you may have a hostile reception, avoid words like ‘think’, ‘feel’, and ‘believe’. Instead, focus on what you know to be the facts, and how you know that. If you are asked what you ‘believe’ or ‘feel’, it is reasonable to say something like ‘I would prefer to focus on the facts [at this stage]’.
Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into expressing an opinion, because that is immediately easier to refute.
Set out your story to better engage your audience
You want your audience to buy into your idea—so use storytelling to help them to engage with it.
That is not inconsistent with either ‘bottom line up front’, or focusing on facts and evidence. You can start with the recommendation or conclusion, then use a narrative approach to highlight the evidence behind your conclusion. If anything, you need a stronger focus on the story, because you need it to be a compelling narrative supporting and supported by the facts that you present.
Try to anticipate questions and objections and answer them in your presentation
When you are expecting hostile questions and objections, it can be a good idea to think about what those will be—and then respond pre-emptively with facts and evidence.
Again, it is harder to argue if someone has already clearly and definitively refuted the point you were going to make. To work out likely objections, it may be helpful to look back at past engagements with this group of stakeholders and see if there are any common themes. You can also ask before a meeting or discussion if they have any questions that they would like to send in advance.