How Critical Thinking and Data Stories Can Improve Data Decision-Making

Episode 22: How Critical Thinking and Data Stories Can Improve Data Decision-Making, Interview with Dan Manning

The work we do as data practitioners often plays a key role in decision-making. In this episode, we talk about how we can foster critical thinking in teams and make captivating 3-minute data stories to help with data decision-making.

You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

What You’ll Learn in this Episode

Data Decision-Making via Critical Thinking

At the beginning of half of the podcast, we talked about how we can make better decisions as data practitioners. To be able to do that, we need:

  • To help foster critical thinking in data teams, collaborate with people in a trusting environment. You can foster trust by being vulnerable and expressing your own opinion, knowing that you can be wrong and still be willing to express it.
  • You can also establish trust by treating others as trustworthy and letting them feel safe in expressing their own thoughts and opinions. 

Data Stories to Help with Data Decision-Making

Another important part of making better decisions is ensuring our audience does not have decision fatigue. And we can do that through stories.

A good story is a story of change. So as a data practitioner, look for places in work where there is change and center your story around that moment of change. 

Dan talks more about 3 minute data stories and how to make and use them in your communications.

Connect with Dan Manning

You can connect with Dan on his Linked In, where he regularly posts about critical thinking and storytelling.

Get in Touch with Hana

Let me know what you think of the episode, you can message at or on Instagram @hanalytx.

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If you enjoyed this episode, check out this episode where you learn about the 7 different types of data stories.

Episode Transcript

Today we have Dan Manning on the show. He is the founder and chief story architect at I love that title by the way, chief story architect. He's also the author of thinking better, critical thinking and creativity through trusting collaboration. So listeners, you can guess what we'll be talking on the show today.

Welcome Dan, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a story architect.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on your podcast. It's always great to be on a podcast that you listen to as well. So, so thank you for, for having me. Yeah. So what I tell people is now I teach people how to think. I teach people how to think better, critically, creatively, and collaboratively, and then how to communicate those ideas to others.

Usually through story or through effective presentations. So I, I get here from a pretty winding. I spent 25 years in the air force. The first half of that time, I was a fighter pilot. The second half of that time, I was a military diplomat. And as I was wrapping up my time in the air force, I didn't wanna go fly for the airlines or work for the defense industry.

So I was thinking, you know, what can I do? How can I take the experience that I have inside the military, where I had solved lots of. Pretty thorny problems, things that were ill, defined, things that were not very the solutions were not readily available. And the tools that we used to solve problems in the military are usually.

Brute force or spending lots of money, but the problems that I was working on, it didn't matter how much money we had or how much force we used. We needed to think better to solve those problems. So I started working on how could I take those skills of leading teams to do that, combine that with the psychology and the neuroscience of how we think to turn that into very practical things that people can use to solve problems in their own life or in their own business.

As I was teaching more and more, it. More and more apparent that people understood what I was talking about better. And they were able to apply it better when I told it in the form of a. So I tried to become a better storyteller myself, even though I'd been a speech writer and I had done, you know, I, I wrote a book and things like that as well, but how can I really focus on what it takes to build a story as a great communication tool, as a tool that communicates my ideas to people in a way that they best understand it.

So then I just got really deep on how to do that and how to be an effective storyteller and how to teach other people how they could do the same thing. 

A lot of our listeners they are data practitioners and we have this term called data storytelling. So storytelling is an important part of how we communicate our work. 

 I actually came across your profile and work after a mutual follow of ours, tagged both of us on a post about critical thinking skills for data professionals. Clearly, this is a scale in addition to storytelling, which we'll touch upon later that you think is important. So could you tell us how critical thinking particularly in teams can help data practitioners with their.

So I really started thinking about critical thinking through one of my last assignments that I had in the military.

And those decisions are life or death decisions for, for people on the ground and people. Will be affected thousands of miles away from decisions that were made in this, you know, this one building. So I really started to look at the way people were making decisions. And in some cases there were processes that allowed for very thorough decision making and people to question their assumptions and, and have alternate viewpoints.

But in other times, decisions were made. Based on sometimes based on illusions that we created for ourselves that were not necessarily based in fact. 

And the more that I started looking at the way that we make that we make decisions, the more I started to realize that often we're our own worst enemy when it comes to good, critical thinking.

I say that our brains are as lazy as we will allow them to be. And our brains have incredible opportunities to be incredibly lazy in the world that we live in. So our brains will look for shortcuts. They look for heuristics or different cognitive biases that come up that lead us, not in a malicious way, but in a frankly in a lazy way to come to conclusions that just simply don't hold.

So when I talk about critical thinking, most of it is how can we. Actually get to the true knowledge that we need to be able to solve a problem, to make a better decision. So that critical thinking is sorting facts, beliefs, and uncertainty to create knowledge useful for making decisions. And the, the way that I found is the best way to do this the most effective way.

It's not to, to take a look at those charts with hundreds of different cognitive biases on them and try to just brute force your way through all of those. It's much more effecti. And much more reliable if I collaborate with other people in a trusting environment that I can show up and I can still have my cognitive biases and my illusions, and you can show up and you can have your cognitive biases and illusions.

But if each of us are able to express our authentically held beliefs in our true views about how we see the problem and the more different we are, the better we are because it's, we start to offset those differences and those biases and get closer and closer to the knowledge we need to make a good decision to solve the problem.

You mentioned about doing this in a trusting environment, can you define how we would be able to identify if we have a trusting environment or create one?

Yes, absolutely. So the definition of trust that that I use as part of my, my curriculum and things that I teach is that trust is believing when given a chance you will not do something damaging to me. Right believing when given a chance you will not do something damaging to me. With this definition, trust is an action verb.

It is a choice that we take. I make the choice to trust you. You can't force anyone to trust you. You can never be compelled to trust. Someone is a choice that, that you make and you make that choice believing that when given a chance, you're not gonna do something damaging. So that when given a chance part is really important, because that requires me to be, to be vulner.

To express my actual, you know, truthfully authentically held beliefs to you. if I don't make the choice to be vulnerable, then we're not talking about trust. Right. We're talking about control or we're talking about something else, but it's by. Bleeding with this vulnerability to express my own opinion, knowing that it could be wrong or knowing that I could have gotten to this place in a way that doesn't necessarily follow logic, but I'm willing to express that to you.

And I know that you're not going to beat me up with it. And that  when we both do this, we're able to create the atmosphere where we can share our ideas, even though we both know and admit that they could be wrong, but it gets us closer and closer to knowledge through the.

Thank you for clarifying that. Do you have any practical tips for how a data practitioner at the individual level and how a data team can implement and hone their critical thinking skills? 

The most effective way is to establish more trust, right? To have a more trusting team. There's, you know, great books by you know, Dr. Amy Edson about psychological safety and you know, the fearless organization. And that's a great place to start as well. There's also a great Ted talk by Paul Zack.

Who's a neuropsychologist that talks about the role of oxytocin and trust. And essentially the conclusion of his research on trust is that the fastest way to create trust is by treating someone else as if they are trustworthy. So if you were leading a. You want to look for those opportunities where you can treat other people as if they are trustworthy by exposing your own vulnerabilities.

By admitting that, you know, this is what I think, but I could be wrong by inviting people to share alternate opinions. And by just creating this place where people can show up. They can live their, their full selves, their full existence, and they can share their authentically held opinions in a place where they're not gonna be beaten up by having those opinions.

And when you do that, you're able to get closer and closer to the knowledge you need to actually make a, a good decision about the problem that you really have rather than the illusions that we create for ourselves. The problems that we imagine that we.

Interesting. It's something I haven't really thought about when it comes to critical thinking skills. What you're mentioning about creating a trusting environment being vulnerable is being able  to hone and practice critical thinking skills in both at individual level and a team level means that we need to all feel comfortable expressing our opinions. These ideas that we may be worried that others may find it like a ridiculous idea or stupid question.

Is that what it's about?

A hundred percent. That's exactly it. That when I create the environment so that people can show up and they can express tho their own ideas, even though their own ideas are infected by bias. Now we're able to offset those biases. Right? You say, you see this set of data or you come to this conclusion, looking at the data this way.

And I I'm curious, I want to ask you, well, what leads you to that conclusion? Why do you think that is? And. I come to this different conclusion this way. And as we do that, if we're operating in a trusting environment, we allow our opinions to be shaped by the other people around us as well.

Start getting closer and closer to that knowledge.

Now it can go wrong. Instead of having a trusting environment, If you have a leader who wants to dominate the conversation and always wants to share their opinion and that their ideas are the right way now, instead of having our, our illusions and our biases offset by other people, we all get infected by one person's illusion. Right. The leader says, this is how I see it. And everyone else sort of adapts themselves to see it that way. Even if they're not like consciously changing their mind, you have this idea that this is the statement that is correct. And now you start altering your beliefs to fit this other person's ideas.

Not because they have a compelling explanation of why they come to that place, but just by their position. And now everyone gets infected with those biases and you're worse off than if you'd never collaborated.

I think it's very applicable to people who work in the data field because we're often working with biases and assumptions and

some people may see that, oh, it it's threatening my credibility. Right? Like if I'm being vulnerable, if I'm showing my biases and assumptions, but it could actually lead to an environment where we can actually have more thoughtful discussions and more honest ones and come to actually solutions that can actually help with solving problems.

Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, when I'm working, when I'm teaching a class on critical thinking, I talk more about illusions than about biases, right? Because the word bias itself comes with a bias. Nobody wants to have a bias.

Clearly like data is biased in, in, you know, could be biased in some direction. And you simply mean that it leans this way because of maybe the way it was collected or the circumstances around the time that it.

That particular data were collected. But if we talk about illusions and in my classes, I show some visual illusions and even some auditory illusions that people hold, nobody feels bad that their brain sees this picture of a frog that also looks like a horse, right? Or these other different illusions that you might see in these images.

Nobody feels bad that their brain tricks them. That way that we can talk about, well, that's just a way that our brain works, but when you start talking about cognitive biases, People are like, well, that's not me. Right? I always evaluate facts as facts and I never allow my previous knowledge to influence those, but that's not true.

Right. We all do that because that's the way our brains are programmed in recognizing that your brain is willing to take a shortcut. And that your brain would gladly accept a wrong answer now for the right answer that you have to think really hard, about to get, to helps us to realize that biases are just a trick of the way that our brains work and that I can work with other people to think better.

And I'll tell you as a person who flew a single seat fighter for most of my career, it's pretty disappointing to realize that I don't do my best thinking by myself that I do my best thinking. When I think with other people.

This is a really interesting discussion. I feel like we can go on about this.  In fact, What you mentioned about our brains being lazy, it's looking for shortcuts.

I can see that there's an evolutionary purpose for that, right? Like we wanna be able to make quick decisions that save our lives. But in the case of our professional work, it can be detrimental. So, in addition to being an expert on critical thinking, you are also a story architect and specialist. A couple weeks ago you posted on LinkedIn about having our audience do hard thinking can actually waste their time and energy.

Just trying to understand what we as presenters are saying. And ultimately it can, I impact the decision that. For instance, if someone has to think hard before deciding the person may tend to favor the faster and easier solution, which can sometimes mean not changing the status quo.

And I thought this is really applicable to data practitioners as well, because we often work in the weeds of data and our work can be technical. Our audience members can be a mix of non-technical and technical folks. And I've often sat through presentations, meant for a mixed audience or a non-technical one where the presenters actually dive into the math behind their models or the code that they use.

Then they usually ask their audience to approve a particular model or solution. So this is stuff that's going way above most of their audience members head.  Could you tell our listen. What a better alternative is to presenting like this and why

Sure. Absolutely. I mean, so the first thing that I want to want to realize is that if I'm making a presentation, it is because I want someone to make a decision.


there, there could be that I'm maybe in an academic environment, I could be, you know, presenting just to teach some concept, but in every other, every business environment, I'm presenting information because someone needs to make a decision.

The decision could be that we're gonna maintain the status quo or that we're going to adopt this piece of code or this strategy. But in the end I needed a decision. And sometimes we don't think about is. As an audience member, you're doing a lot of work when you're listening to someone else's presentation that it takes some cognitive resources for you to just pay a.

Especially in a work from home environment where you've got lots of things, maybe, you know, a peacock in your neighborhood that might that micro you've got pets, you've got delivery people. You also have your phone, 

you have all these other things going around and you know that you have to pay attention to that presentation if you're going to ever be able to make that decision.

So it take some cognitive. Just to pay attention. Right. It's interesting that we say pay attention. The second is that interpreting the actual words that the presenter is saying also takes cognitive effort. If I'm looking at a chart that you're presenting, or if I'm looking at your code and actually trying to work my way through, what does this code actually do?

That takes some cognitive effort as well.

Don't realize is that the cognitive effort, we eventually need to be able to make the decision comes from the same bucket as the energy that you are spending on paying attention and trying to understand what it is that the presenter is saying. So if I'm not very clear or if I don't give an interesting presentation and it takes people a lot of effort just to focus on what are the words that I'm saying, I'm burning up all of that cognitive energy before they ever get to the place where they can make a decision.

And what, what happens is is that we, you know, decision fatigue becomes a thing. And instead of putting in the effort to make that. That cognitively difficult decision at the end. I'm already too tired. I don't have the energy. Let's just keep doing what we're doing today. We'll continue to study this and we'll move on.

Essentially. We just keep doing the same thing over and over because we don't have the energy anymore to make a good decision.

That's a pretty serious repercussion and delayed decision can also have some consequences. So this is something I don't think we actively think about. So thank you for pointing that out. 

Yeah, so the pathway to get better is to make yourself more interesting and more understandable. And the most effective way to do that 


is through stories.

The first thing that caught my attention. This post was actually the graphic. And it said in really big font, your big idea, poisons, our brain and stories are the antidote. And I was wondering if you can expand on this, I teach data practitioners how to present. And part of the process I teach is coming up with a big idea first, early on so that you know, what your main message is that you're trying to deliver and then crafting a story like what we've been talking about, but wondering what you mean about the big idea, poisoning our brain.

Like, should we avoid doing that altogether?

 I would never be against big ideas. Like big ideas are what move us forward. So definitely as the person who is the thinker, Eventually the presenter, you need to have some big idea that's driving you forward. And certainly you need to have clarity on what is, what are you trying to get to?

What is the decision that you're trying to get your audience to? What is the, you know, the key takeaway, what is the one message you want them to understand? But the, in that particular post, I was talking about a, a relatively new piece of research that came out of France that was published in current biology.

I think, where they. Gave people, these a variety of tasks to do one group. They gave them this high cognitive load task that they would have to, to work on. That was a really challenging mental exercise. The other group, they gave them a, a simple task, and then they measured the level of a a chemical called glutamate in their brains essentially.

And what they found was that this glutamate would build up over time in the people who were thinking hard, the people who. Using their cognitive resources to try to work on this. This problem had increased levels of glutamate. And what they found was that as that level of glutamate increased, when it came time to make economic decisions, they would make choices that were the easiest and had the shortest payoff term.

So rather than doing something harder, that might take longer, but would result in a bigger payout. They wanted the short and fast. And this connects to what I was saying about the same cognitive resources that you use to pay attention and to understand what the presenter is saying are the ones that you need to make that decision at the.

So, if you're presenting, you want to make sure that you present in a way that is one is interesting because it's, we don't have to pay attention to something. That's interesting. We give our attention to that thing where you think about watching Netflix, you know, you might lose a couple hours watching Netflix because you're engrossed in the story, or even on Instagram or TikTok, you may find that you've watched lots and lots of different little short stories, because they're interesting to you.

You didn't have to pay attention. You gave your attention to those things. And the second is that you make it easier to understand. So one of the examples that I talk about with data in particular is if I talk about food insecurity in the United States, right? There's a statistic that says 2.9 million households or about 8.4% of all us children suffer from food insecurity, right?

This loose fact, there's not much that you can do with that, right. It's hard for you to imagine what 8.4% of us children.  You know, what, what that looks like, what 2.9 million households looks like is hard to put those in context. But if I tell you a story about, you know, a woman I met who was, you know, suffered an injury on the job and she wasn't able to go to work and she wasn't able to buy as much food as she'd been able to buy before for her, you know, six year old daughter in.

But instead, she was able to go to a local food bank and pick up food there until she was able to heal up and get back to work. Now, if I talk about the importance of food banks or whether we should give more to food banks, or whether it's a city, we should fund more food banks, you have this image of this person and how it actually applies.

And you can contextualize. This 6.1 million children who are suffering from food insecurity into this very small, very particular case. And now when I talk about the other statistics, your brain is gonna be grounded back into that one place and allow you to have a richer engagement and relationship with that data and the decision that you'll eventually make.

Thank you for distinguishing between paying attention and giving attention. That's a, that's a really, that's a really great point that you make and how stories can help people actually give you the attention.

So could you share with us tips on how a data practitioner can craft a story for their work and for themselves? And in particular, I know in your profile, you mentioned three minute story. So maybe can you define what that is and how someone can craft that?

Yeah, absolutely. So the way that I think about storytelling goes back to the way that I think about critical thinking as well. Right? I think about  why we're lazy thinkers. For exactly the reason you said, right? We're lazy thinkers because we're more interested in these physical threats and we wanna keep ourselves ready for these physical challenges that come to us.

We're good storytellers. We're good story receivers, because they're important to the survival of humanity,

if you think about the earliest humans, when you were trying to. Continue to live. You had to know where to find water where to get food. If you're going to hunt animals, you need to understand how the animals behave, how to make tools, how to make clothes, how to make shelter.

And you cannot develop all of that knowledge yourself over your lifetime. Certainly not up until the time that you're an adult. You need to take care of those things. As a fighter pilot, we would say that you, you will not live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself. You have to learn from the mistakes of others.

And it's through stories that we learn from the mistakes of others. So when you're a data practitioner, Or you're making a presentation. You want to present in a story because that's the way that humans are already primed to learn. We've been telling stories for hundreds of thousands of years. We've only been using PowerPoint for like 40.

So if you, when you tell a story, you're able to tap into the way that humans expect to sort of be taken through this, this scenario and their brains light up. As they contextualize the information, they start to imagine it in different ways. They start to combine it with their own experiences in a way that doesn't happen with.

The most important thing to know about telling a good story is that every story worth telling every story worth hearing is a story of change. So as a data practitioner, look at the data and find the place where things change. Or what causes things to change and then center your story around that moment of change.

Right? I, I tease it in the beginning. Everything that I tell leading up to that moment of change are only those things that contribute to the change that's going to happen and everything after that are all the consequences of that change. 

And when I do that, I'm telling a story that's as old as us sitting around a campfire, talking about how I survived an attack from a you know, from the saber tooth tiger or whatever that, that jumped.

And that three minute stories are short enough that allow us to hold attention, to have people give us their attention long enough for us to convey that message. But also that allows us then to get to the broader context, right? The broader data or the, the broader considerations that we need to make to be able to, to make that.

To make that choice three minutes also forces us to be tight and concise and to make very conscious choices about what's going to stay in and what's gonna go out. So at the end you have something that's packed with context, packed with information, leads people to a change, and then tells them why that lesson was important for them.

So would you say that a three minute story is applicable to use in any type of presentation or is it for a particular situation where it's helpful?

Well, so if I have, if I'm doing a keynote, for instance, I, I do, I'm a speech writer. I also write eulogies for people if they need help, sort of giving a eulogy for a loved one that, that passed away. And I use the same story structure there, like for a eulogy we'll probably put together maybe three or four stories that are three minutes or less.

If I'm giving a keynote. Presentation to a big audience. I might have time to do maybe four or five different stories that link together on a theme, but if I'm doing a pitch, for instance, if I'm I work with a lot of startup founders, they may only have five minutes for their pitch. They need to use probably two and a half of that to tell a story.

And then the rest they can convey the the information. And it doesn't take a, a ton of words. You can convey a story in just a few seconds, if you were very conscious about how you've structured it and how it all centers around change.

Got it. Would you recommend that we have a story at the beginning of the presentation or the middle? Is there like a particular recommendation that you have.

I would absolutely do it at the beginning. Right. Because your audience is not necessarily, in fact, they're not going to be expecting a story at all. So when you start with a story and you start with what I call a preamble, which is just a, you know, one or two sentences that sort of tease the change that we're gonna talk about and promised the promises them a lesson.

If I were to say something like let me tell you a story about my neighbor, who. Who is fighting food insecurity and is gonna change the way that you think about this problem in America. Right. People are gonna listen. Like, all right. Well, I I'm, that's a bold statement. I'm gonna, I'm gonna listen and see what's going on here.

And you only need them to give you their attention for that three minutes to be able to create what's what's happening for them. And when you do that, now, they're going to be invested in the rest of your presentation. You're going to grab their attention right away and you'll get a hold onto it to convey the, the one key message that you're trying to convey anyway.

Thank you so much for sharing all this advice on storytelling, as well as critical thinking. You've definitely given us a lot to think about especially when it comes to implementing this in our profession as data practitioners.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners?

So, as you mentioned, we met on LinkedIn. I post on LinkedIn almost every day and I try to put high quality content that you can use right away to make yourself a better storyteller. So there's lots of information that I put out there that is, is pretty valuable. And I try to make sure that it makes you better.

If you give me your attention enough to learn from it.

As I mentioned to the listeners, I follow you on LinkedIn and I'm really impressed by how consistently you also post you even posted this morning before our interview. So yeah, there's definitely a lot of valuable advice that you share on there. And I think that's very applicable to data practitioners.

So thank you for doing that. So I will, in the show notes include a link to where people can follow you on LinkedIn. Thank you so much, Dan, for taking the time , to talk to us today about storytelling and critical thinking.

I love it. Thanks for having me and thanks for doing this podcast. I learned a lot from it every week.