Why Mark Twain Was an Analytics Guru

While I have no doubt Albert Einstein was talking about digital marketing when he said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” I have also come to the view that Mark Twain was an analytics guru. While possibly most famous for his “There are lies, damned lies and statistics” quote, I have discovered a number of other quotes that demonstrate his understanding of the world of analytics. Here is a selection of some of them:

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Here he was talking about segmentation. Generalized metrics such as overall conversion ratios, average time on site, and so on are largely useless. They only make sense when the data is segmented and the underlying patterns and differences can be understood. The same is for survey data as well. Metrics such as NPS can vary wildly among different customer segments and so these segments need to be identified and looked at separately.

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

A great insight into the power of evidence-based decision making. Solid facts, presented well, are hard to ignore. Twain was probably also thinking about the need to have an approach to testing and experimentation when he said this. There’s no better way to silence the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) than to have concrete evidence from testing about why one approach is better than the other.

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

Sometimes the data doesn’t make sense and the skilled analyst needs to understand why. Is the data telling her something new? Is this real insight or is there a problem with the data? Often, if it doesn’t seem right, then it probably isn’t right, but occasionally there may be something that the business has missed, the competition has missed, and there is real opportunity to be exploited. Just make sure you’ve checked the data thoroughly before you tell the CEO!

Twain also had some great advice for budding analysts:

“The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”

This is a great piece of advice. Basically, keep it simple, but don’t be simplistic. A good analyst will be able to present quite complex notions in ways that are easy for people to understand. This is the art of storytelling. Developing compelling narratives that engage the audience is quite a skill. There’s an important role for data visualization here as well. It’s harder to create simple charts and graphics than to scatter lines and bars all over a PowerPoint slide. That’s why an analyst also has to be an artist.

“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”

I think it’s OK to say that you don’t know; it’s better than bluffing…

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

…and being found out later, as long as you say that you’ll find out the answer and come back to them. And then make sure you do.

And finally:

“The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.”

Don’t be afraid of silence, particularly if you’re presenting to your audience. Deliver your insight and wait for a response. Maybe ask them a question, and then wait for a response. “Is that something you recognize?” and “Does that fit in with what you know?” are all ways of seeing whether what you’re saying is hitting the mark or missing the mark. It’s better to find out in the course of a conversation that what you’re saying is not falling on fertile ground rather than just to be ignored later. Maybe you need to get more evidence or maybe you need to explain the point in a different way.

So that’s why Mark Twain was an analytics guru!

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