Today I’m going to write about my first true love. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but I’m going to allow myself that creative freedom. My love of writing has been instilled since a young age. When I was at school, I always enjoyed creative writing assignments. I remember the days where I’d lovingly craft a story and make it into a proper little book, written up with pictures and stapled together. One I can still remember is a spooky tale about seeing a ghost on a family holiday (wishful thinking for my young brain).
As I grew older, I still loved writing but opportunities to do so became less frequent. Writing essays for school and exams wasn’t always the type of thing to capture my attention. When I got to A Level age, I actually gave up English at AS Level and instead pursued Music. This was largely down to, frankly, a terrible teacher who offered neither encouragement nor expertise. I let my creativity out instead via an online journal and, crucially, online poetry. Yes, I was one of those teenagers.
University came and went, and I wrote essays galore. I usually did relatively well, but not outstandingly on every occasion. Academia requires a certain formula, which I can knock out, but wouldn’t always get that fire lit.
So, I graduated and wobbled my way into full-time work. Writing was all but forgotten. Paying the bills and making my way as an adult were the focus, alongside early-twenties socialising, relationships, living, and learning.
It wasn’t until later in my career that I dusted off the keyboard and wrote anything of value. In adulthood my skills were required every now and then – writing snotty letters to landlords, sending important emails, that sort of thing. It’s still a source of great dissatisfaction to me that for the most part, I have little to complain about. I haven’t had to send a strongly-worded letter for ages.
As I advanced in my career, I was surprised to find my fingers tapping away creating written content more frequently. As I worked in finance and compliance, this was more often than not some kind of data-based copy. A report, an email, an updated piece of guidance. Although some of the data-based work was a slog, there was a satisfaction in using it to prove points or to demonstrate efficiency.
I found myself quietly pleased when I could write a fact-based, irrevocable sentence. I could tell someone exactly why something was the way it was. I’d already developed my skills interpreting data and analysing it for results. The next step was to write about what I’d discovered.
The proof of the pudding…
… is, as we know, in the eating. Data-driven copy was giving me an opportunity to demonstrate this. I could probably (almost certainly) have conjured up a more effective metaphor, but here we are. As I worked in compliance and quality assurance, I was pretty big on people doing things correctly. People, as it turns out, were not as big on accuracy as I was. Which, of course, is why I was in the job.
There were some incidences of concerning non-compliance peppering delivery activity. What was the best way to deal with it? Gather an evidence base; my beloved data. Use this evidence to calculate the financial impact of said non-compliance. Write this up in a snappy report to senior management and wait to make the next move.
It would have been all well and good me moaning about people breaking the rules, but where would my proof have been? I couldn’t just send a wishy-washy email vaguely pointing fingers. Proof was needed, and data provided me with that.
Success and results
Later in my career, I worked from an operations perspective rather than quality or compliance. It was of equal importance here to use data as a basis for reports or other written projects. A key thing I’d learned was the necessity of using data-driven copy to prove something. If you’re bidding for a new project, trying to engage with current or potential partners, then you have to be able to show what you can do.
The field I worked in was difficult produced results that were difficult to quantify, to put it mildly. It’s extremely hard to prove that what you’re doing impacts the emotional or mental wellbeing of its participants. Try as I might, it was never easy going. Still, there was always enough data to show how many groups were being run, for example, or how many people a project was reaching. That was a good start.
As part of a potential career move in this job, I was required to write a draft bid for another project. I didn’t get the job, but when I got my feedback I was the only person who had thought to put data from previous similar projects in the bid. To me, it was obvious. You’re writing the bid, you show how you’ve had success in the same area before. Easy. It wasn’t just that I was the only one in the recruitment pool who’d done it. I got the impression it wasn’t really something that had been considered before.
A new career move found me back in the arms of quality, compliance, and audit. Romantic, I know. This role required me to assess on a monthly basis the performance of different agencies and organisations in relation to the proper safeguarding of children. The data I worked with could tell a lot of stories. It was about efficiency and promises kept. Are people doing what they say they are?
Results, of course, varied. The data set was huge and complex. There was always a key theme, though. Accountability. I ran these performance reports and wrote them up. I also wrote quarterly themed audit reports – how well did agencies handle particular cases? What went well, what went wrong? The data collected for these was interesting. Self-assessments and an in-person multi-agency audit day to discuss everything. I had quantitative and qualitative data, and I had some great reports at the end of it.
Words and numbers
Words and numbers tell more of a story than one or the other can alone. Staring at a page full of numbers, percentages, facts and figures is great if you put it together. Someone else coming at it from a different standpoint, well, maybe it’s just jargon to them. To make numbers meaningful, you need some words behind them.
Yes, that number’s gone up from last year to this. What does that mean, though? Is that good or bad? Why has it changed? What did you do?
If you’re not thinking like that, your data isn’t intuitive. It’s less meaningful. To the same end, if you’ve handed me a beautifully written report telling me exactly what a wonderful job you’re doing, I’ll read it. Maybe I’ll be impressed. Maybe, though, I’ll think, ‘So? How do I know that’s true?’ Sometimes, you can’t just wink and say, ‘Trust me.’ Show me. Tell me, yes, by all means. Please do. Show me, as well.
Back up your fabulous story with the figures. Did you turn over 25% more profit than last year? Wow! Great news. Can you prove it? Brilliant. Can you show me how you did it? Even better. This keeps me interested, and it shows me something really important.
It shows me you’re actively keeping track of your work. You know what’s worked and what hasn’t because you’re monitoring it. You’re using that information to improve and to get results. That’s the real story.
Data-driven round the bend
It’s hard to make sense of data sometimes, I know. That’s why intuitive information retention and analysis is key. That’s why data-driven copy is so important. You keep the right numbers, you write the right words, and you’ve got a living, breathing representation of everything you’ve achieved.
Am I biased towards a harmonious union between words and numbers? Probably. I’ve been knee-deep in it, and I know it works. That’s not to disparage my love of the creative written form. Not at all. Most of the writing I do comes straight off the top of my head with a little planning, and next to no other information.
I could make this post really fire up with some information about how many companies use data to build on success. It seems almost contradictory not to. To me, though, this feels like a good time to just tell the story. It’s my experience, and sad as it may be, it’s personal to me.
Can you count on some numbers-based blog posts in the future? Maybe so. It might be helpful to put my money where my mouth is.