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  • Eloise Leeson

Data, decisions, and du beurre.

Updated: Jul 16

Today's post is a guest post, from my phenomenal friend, colleague and co-conspirator, Neil Pettinger. He and I have created a brand new initiative designed to answer a thorny question: "why is it so hard to talk about data in a way that works for everyone?"


Find out more at TalkData.org.

I read Elizabeth Stokoe's Talk while I was on holiday in the south of France last summer. Seven months later the book still smells of sun cream.


The book is about how conversation actually works. The underlying dynamics of conversation. The conventions of conversation. It shows us the things we take for granted in conversations, and therefore—by implication—how we can often overlook the things we need to change about the way we converse with each other in order to make our conversations work better.


The reason I was reading Talk on holiday was because earlier that July I'd been thinking about designing a new training workshop for NHS data analysts. I wanted to address head-on the techniques needed to have better conversations with managers and clinicians.


A common complaint of NHS managers is that the data they get isn't useful enough. The data might be accurate, but it isn't relevant. It doesn't capture the essence of the problem that needs to be solved. And the reason for that failure is usually because a conversation hasn't taken place where the manager's problem gets translated into a data query.


I was reading Liz Stokoe's book in a search for inspiration. And I got both of those things in spades. But I also got something else, which was entirely down to the fact that I was reading the book whilst in France.


I'm probably guilty of taking my communication skills for granted. I mean, I don't think I've got high-end communication skills or anything, but I am reasonably confident in my ability to ask questions of people and to listen to what they say in reply, and to understand those responses. And one of the great joys in my life is to have conversations with people in which ideas get aired and then developed by the ensuing to-and-fro. So not only do I think I'm reasonably good at conversations, I also enjoy having conversations. Enormously.


But not when I'm in France. Even though I can speak a bit of French (I studied it to A-level back in the day) I don't feel at all confident about—for example—going into the campsite shop and asking for a baguette and some butter, still less about engaging in just normal everyday chat with the shop assistant. I can only do that in my own language.


And this huge difference in confidence between the me in France quaking at the idea of having to ask which aisle the butter's on, and the me in the UK happy to talk to a consultant obstetrician about demand and capacity problems in a maternity hospital labour ward, this difference got me thinking: what about people who aren't quite so confident about their communication skills in their mother tongue, what if they think about the obstetrician in the way I think about the French campsite shop assistant?


So there I was in late July last year, gazing out over the Golfe de Saint-Tropez, trying to build up the courage to go to the campsite shop. And I got this sudden injection of empathy. If I was anywhere near right with this, I realised that any training workshop on how to talk to managers and clinicians about data was going to have to cover a huge issue.


And the issue was how we instil confidence in people to initiate and then conduct those conversations. In the same way that I was hankering after some coaching and cajoling in the art of what to say (and how to say it) to the French campsite shop assistant, so analysts might be hankering after coaching—practical, down-to-earth advice—in what to say to UK managers and clinicians.


That's how this workshop was born: from a realisation that when you're way out of your comfort zone, what you need is hands-on guidance. Say this, then if she says that, say this in response. A formula. A procedure. A code.


And it doesn't matter if you get the grammar wrong, the important thing is that you're making the effort in the first place. All great things have to start somewhere.

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