The supply chain industry spends a lot of time worrying about the last mile. How do you ensure delivery to a customer’s front door happens reliably? Similarly, analytics teams puzzle over how to best deliver insights to their customers. Whether it is a discussion about how to visualise data, or what techniques to use to communicate results to the business, it is identifying ways to close the gap between what an analytics team and their customers know.

While effective presentation of findings is important, this sole focus on the last mile can lead to a false sense of confidence. If I visualise the data clearly and draw upon all my storytelling skills, then surely my key messages will land? Sadly, we know this is not the case. There have been many clearly presented insights about the effects of climate change and effectiveness of vaccines — to name but two examples — and yet many refuse to acknowledge either. How can this be if this evidence has been so frequently presented and highlighted?

Good luck denying climate change when the ocean takes us all. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

In the words of one of history’s greatest statesmen, Alexander Hamilton: “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.” While it is comforting to believe that we tend to make data-driven decisions if the facts are presented to us, this is often not the case. In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains that we are often driven by our reactive, emotional cognitive faculties. Even when we do “think slow” there are still numerous biases that we fall victim to, colouring our judgement — usually without us realising.

You see, but you do not observe. [..] It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
— Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

To ensure our insights lead to the appropriate action, we need to understand the pertinent battle is not for the last mile, but for the last twenty nanometers. This is the width of our synaptic clefts, the distance between two neurons that needs to be bridged for a neural impulse to be transmitted. Realising how an audience’s brains are most likely to parse and frame information is critical to understanding how to deliver impact. For example, defusing preconceived notions can be as valuable as presenting new findings. Without knowledge of what happens in between your audience’s neurons, you are missing clues.

That synaptic cleft is about 1/5000th the width of a human hair. Image from NIH Image Gallery.

While this knowledge can be powerful for imparting insight in an engaging manner, it requires rethinking how we present findings. Instead of starting with how to best lay out the information or what story to use to frame this, instead we should start in the mind of our audience. How do they think? What are their biases? In what state will they be when reviewing the results? It is understanding how to bridge their views at present and the desired views in future. How can you move them in a way that safeguards against irrational responses that interdict both sensible reflection and the right resulting action?

In a future article we will consider some of the pitfalls to avoid, while highlighting methods that can help in this process. In the meantime, if you find yourself wishing to have a lasting impact on your audience next time, looks beyond the last mile, and think about the last twenty nanometers.

— Ryan