A Short Guide to Ignoring Data

People like to say clever things in presentations. Or, rather, they like to repeat words that they have heard in the past, usually at other presentations, that sound clever and use them as a launching pad to telling you about the latest release of whatever random bit of technology they have created and want you to buy. My personal favorite is that early television was really just a video of people reading scripts. The early pioneers had simply taken the form of radio and put in on TV.

Is this even true? Personally, I have no idea, but I’ve heard countless people say this at conferences, as though they had spent untold hours reviewing brittle old pieces of film capturing those first early broadcasts. I suppose there’s a good point in there – that new technology apes old technology until someone figures out a good use for it. Why don’t people just say that? Why, instead, do they repeat something that they merely picked up somewhere else?

The other favorite idea that people like to say is there “is a difference between data and information.” This is one of those phrases that people say and then look at you with big eyes, as though they can actually peer inside your cranium to see your mind blown. Of course, no one’s mind is blown. Mostly we’re just thinking “what?”

Because, again, the speaker is focused on repeating a phrase, not providing an idea. And this is actually a reasonable idea. We are generally too focused on numbers. There are so many things that we can count (data) in this industry that we often forget to take the time to figure out if that number means anything (information).

The problem, ultimately, though has precious little do with the amount of data that is out there and lots to do with the people looking at the data. The proliferation of data and the scarcity of information is a user problem. We get distracted by numbers – which are often presented in extremes (highest, lowest, fastest, largest) – and don’t take the steps to make these points make sense in our world.

Here’s how to fix that.

You need to always remember that nothing – no data point – is ever more important than your business goal. I don’t care if you have the tiniest business in the whole world, selling to a minute target audience. Your business and what you want to achieve has to be bigger in your mind than the number of people with smartphones, the speed of Facebook’s growth, or Apple’s current market cap. Those numbers, along with the rest of the great swirling sea of data that we exist in are either helpful to you in achieving your goal or pure trivia. If your business has nothing to do with Apple’s market capitalization (around $350 billion), than that number should be about as interesting to you as the weight of the world’s largest burrito (about 4,456 pounds).

Practice Time

Finding your way through data is not all that difficult. In fact, let’s practice together. Take a minute and write down on a piece of paper.

Got it? OK. Now review the following data points:

  • Two-thirds (66 percent) of adults use social media.
  • Half of all adult smartphone users have apps on their phones.
  • Eighty-one percent of all small businesses use social media for marketing.
  • More men than women use social shopping sites.
  • Twenty-nine percent of all organizations have adopted a systematic approach to SEO.
  • Over $1.25 billion worth of stuff was sold on this year’s Cyber Monday.

I’m sure you found some (or all) of them fascinating. But were any of them really useful to you? I mean useful for you to make a decision or change direction or start a new project. Possibly. This is only a tiny little scoop of the data that is out there but it should help you to see the need to have a filter. Remember that data, just like technology, is only really worthwhile if it helps you achieve your particular goals.

However, if you don’t have your goals set, you are bound to get distracted. You will fall back into the trap of not being able to distinguish between what is available and what is useful. Setting, remembering, and reinforcing your own goals has to always be at the core of what you do.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.