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Interview with Lea Pica – Using Data & Storytelling To Spur Action – Episode #81
WARNING: This episode is only for marketers who use data to make informed decisions.

Lea Pica is an industry-acclaimed data storytelling advocate, international keynote speaker, and instructor. She began her career as a data analytics practitioner with over 15 years of experience building digital marketing practices for companies like Scholastic, Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren, and Prudential.

Today she teaches presentation, data visualization, and her signature data storytelling methodology, the PICA Protocol, to tens of thousands of data practitioners all around the world. Lea also hosts the Present Beyond Measure Podcast, and is authoring her first book, called “Story-Driven Data,” publishing later this year.

Questions and topics we discussed include:

  • How Lea made the leap from in-house marketer to a business owner.
  • What drew her towards data and data storytelling?
  • How can hiring managers evaluate a marketer’s ability to be a data practitioner?
  • What is data storytelling? Why is it important?
  • What is the PICA protocol? (Bonus – Lea shares the story of how she created this framework)
  • What usually causes a lack of action after a data presentation is shown to a team?
  • Should presentation slides have words on them? How many words are too many?
  • What skills did you need to learn to become a great public speaker?
  • And more!


Full Episode Transcript:

Kenny Soto  0:02  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the people of digital marketing with your host, Kenny Soto, and today’s special guest, Leah pica. Hi, Leah, how are you?


Lea Pica  0:13  

I’m great. Thanks so much for having me.


Kenny Soto  0:15  

All right. So, normally, I have a very straightforward question that I asked all my guests at the beginning of each podcast episode just to get a better sense of who they are as professionals and as a person. But I feel like your story and from doing research about you, your career is very unique. 


You started off earlier in your career, working at various organizations as an in-house marketer, yet, you currently own your own business. So my first question for you is What convinced you to take the leap and create your own business?


Lea Pica  0:52  

Oh, my goodness. Well, what a great question. So I actually spent a lot of time both as an in-house marketer, and an analyst as well as on the agency side. And what I began noticing throughout the, you know, 12 years I spent as a practitioner, I noticed something very important, which was, our numbers would look great. 


And we would be asked to go present them in meetings, and people would fall asleep, ask really confusing questions, and maybe even have some tension or debates. And by the time people left that meeting, we really weren’t sure if the insights we worked so hard on had the impact that we were really hoping for, something was really missing. 


And then I randomly was inspired to just figure out like, why is this happening? And I stumbled upon a book called presentations, and by gar, Reynolds, and everything changed everything, I suddenly realized, where we were all going wrong with the practice of visual and verbal communication of data, especially in business meetings. 


So after years of self-study, my practice really started to improve to the point where things were really moving and shaking for me and my career. And I was actually invited to speak at several conferences on this topic. Because I was so passionate about it, I felt like there was a huge gap in the conversation around this. 


So once I started speaking at conferences, things really started to snowball for me, I really put everything I walked into my talk, I put all of everything I knew into presenting because I kind of had to make good on the promise of what I was teaching. And eventually, the speed built up to a point where I began to get asked if I was willing to teach workshops. 


And at the same time, someone I consider one of my dearest friends in the field and my mentor, Tim Wilson, who is also known as Gilligan on data. He encouraged me to think about like doing this for a living. 


And after a few months, when a few people approached me for workshops, I had the opportunity to make a jump, and also work part-time for a prestigious analytics consultancy. And it’s just been history ever since.


Kenny Soto  3:16  

What is it about data and data storytelling that draws you toward that particular field? 


Lea Pica  3:26  

Oh, my gosh, well, I have a really rich background in musical theater, drama, and film. And I’ve just, the story has been a big part of my life ever since I was a very little girl. And what I realized at some point was that in meetings and business meetings, we are gathered to learn something, and we’re supposed to be taking audiences on a journey and facilitating a transformation. But that’s not necessarily what’s happening. 


So for me, data storytelling is really the synthesis of so many incredible disciplines. You’re looking at the left brain side of the numbers, the analytics, the observations, the insights, but you’re also looking at the creative right brain side of the storytelling, the emotional aspect, drawing people in and getting people excited. 


So for me, well-done data storytelling, especially in a business context has such profound potential for paving the career path of anyone who wants anything is the path for me to becoming a thought leader in that space. And it is just such an exciting, cross-disciplinary, you know, mix of different techniques and approaches that I just find it to be the best of every world in that respect.


Kenny Soto  4:53  

I’m gonna throw you a curveball. And I asked this question because I know that there will be a percentage of listeners who might be asked a similar question. If a hiring manager is evaluating someone, either in a marketing role or a data scientist data strategist role, what are some criteria that hiring managers should look for? Is he one of those candidates? What is a set of qualities that separate candidates who know data from people who just say, I understand it, but it’s all fluff?


Lea Pica  5:37  

Okay? Well, at the very least, if you’re looking for data practitioners, people who can really comb through and synthesize the data, I would say the greatest quality to look for is a real detective hat. Someone who is going to, like really relish the process of diving into a wall of numbers and looking, hooking that up with the different business questions and decisions being weighed. 


And seeing how to make the connection between those two things and solve mysteries, there are mysteries to be solved in the data. What I will tell you is what hiring managers are looking for, which is Forrester predicted a few years ago that 25% of all new business hires and promotions would require data, and storytelling skills of some kind, that was pretty groundbreaking to learn. 


But it really makes a lot of sense, because managers are looking for practitioners who don’t just know how to create pivot tables and interesting-looking dashboards. They want people who have the capacity to not just explore the data but to really explain it, and connect those dots for the audience. 


And what was also interesting is that in the same year, Jeff Weiner had a study conducted on LinkedIn to look for the number one skills gap between what candidates were offering, and what hiring managers are looking for. And guess what it was a presentation and verbal communication, and design and design, way above coding. 


So that was really another really interesting point will every data practitioner be required to be a top public speaker? No, but it is important to think about the fact that people are looking for that sort of cross-disciplinary skill set now because they want practitioners to grow into the role of explaining, you know, thought leader, subject matter expert in that way.


Kenny Soto  7:43  

What is the PICO protocol?


Lea Pica  7:47  

Glad you asked. The Pico protocol is my practical and repeatable methodology for healthy and actionable data, storytelling, and data storytelling. So the idea is that when you’re telling a data story, and it’s mainly geared for live business presentations, it’s a four-phase process to take every story narrative chart visual, and run it through this methodology. So that you really have a starting point of what is the purpose of that. And I can go through the steps if you’d like, all the way through to how it’s presented in a way to creates total clarity and insight.


Kenny Soto  8:30  

Let’s dive deeper. What are the steps in the book?


Lea Pica  8:34  

Sure. So I already gave away the first one, the first one is P for purpose. The idea is that a lot of times, we will open a slide deck and start throwing in chart after chart after table after bullet point after diagram, in no particular order. 


And it becomes a kind of becomes something that I call the kitchen sink presentation where we’re throwing everything, including that in there. And that’s not what our audiences are looking for. 


They’re looking for clarity, they’re looking for the actual story, and they don’t always know how to tell you what they’re looking for. And that’s where that purpose step can really come in before you start designing. 


You’re learning to choose the right data visualization type for the message and data that you’re working with. And see if it starts to answer your questions. Then the second one is an eye for insight. 


And we use the word insight very loosely in this field. Usually like oh, here’s the data. That’s insight. And that’s not the actual definition. A definition is something that creates a totally accurate and quick, clear understanding of a person or thing essentially and generally has some kind of aha or eureka moment built into it. 


So insight is perfect for storytelling because it’s that thing that creates a twist in the story. It’s something that the audience didn’t know before. So how can you use both narrative things where I teach something called the narrative arc, which is the arc used for every single story that you can take your audience through but also visually create insight with different annotations and markings that help people understand the information faster? The third one is seen for context, this one is super fun because it’s where you get to really put your detective hat on. 


This is where you don’t want to take the first observations you’re finding at face value. And you want to ask yourself, have I dug deeply enough into this story? Do I have all of the information at my disposal to present a complete picture? And is what I’m sharing going to help inform a well-made decision? 


So you might be looking at things like prior time period analysis, performance targets, benchmarks, segmentation, or adding in new measures or categories or calculations that broaden the story out, this is where you want to take your audience deeper. 


And then finally, we have a for aesthetics. So by far, it’s the last but by far, not the least. And we often think that aesthetics is about making things look flashy, cool, and snazzy. And that’s not what this is about with data communication. It’s really about simplicity, only including what you absolutely need in the visual space, and emphasis, how are you drawing attention to specifically what you want your audience to notice? 


And what I find is, that this is a real rock solid and practical approach to taking all of your visuals through to make sure that your audience connects them to what they should do about all of it, right?


Kenny Soto  11:58  

We’re gonna get very meta here, because I did a whole research dive, if you will, into the PICO protocol. And one thing that interests me, and I think the listeners would like to know, too, is whenever someone comes up with an original mental framework, like the protocol, can you tell the audience the story of how you even came up with the PICO protocol?


Lea Pica  12:23  

That’s funny. Well, I was I knew that I wanted to have a framework like this. And then the words were sort of floating around. I remember I was with my mom in my office, and we were noodling on different phrases and such. And I was like, well, whatever it is, I don’t want it to be my last name, which was my married name at the time. 


I was like, that’s just too, you know, egotistic. So we’re throwing around the letters and we’re like, okay, see, for context. All right. Okay. Insight, okay. I, okay, have an aesthetic purpose. It just like, came together that way. But also the name. The word pika has these also funny alternative meanings to it. It’s like a design unit. It’s also a very small, rotund animal that eats dead birds. So I thought, hey, let’s try something new.


Kenny Soto  13:23  

What are the considerations when it comes to creating your own framework? Because obviously, it’s not something that can happen overnight. It’s something that you have to think about constantly workshopping with other people. 


So for any marketer out there, who may not be ready to start creating their own framework, but wants to at least start ruminating on it, brainstorming something that they can make their own. What advice would you have for them?


Lea Pica  13:51  

Hmm? Well, the main thing I would do is befriend an online thesaurus. I’m always using a thesaurus to find clever words and phrases or acronyms and things like that. So, the first thing I start with, though, is the actual framework idea. And I try to write down, I’m really good at brainstorming. 


So I really in a flurry write down all of the different words that I can think of that would be included in that, I think of what is the purpose of it, what’s the ideal outcome of it, and sometimes the outcome itself is useful for that guide. 


And then I kind of start to see letters pop out. And if there are themes in the letters, then I start to go to a thesaurus and see, how can I make this work. And then usually, there are so many alternative words for things that you can make it work. 


So I teach something called the conscious critique that is part of my meeting communication curriculum, and it’s a way of giving feedback that lowers the resistance of the people hearing the feedback and invites really healthy productive conversation. So I came up with the framework called assess because it just happened to be the number of steps. 


But after I saw, like, Whoa, this is what we’re doing, we are assessing this, I managed to make all of the words work. So it takes a lot of fine-tuning, and you run it past people like you said, but you really want to think about the different kinds of words you use the outcome, the intention, and then go at the source for a bit.


Kenny Soto  15:33  

What usually causes a lack of action, after the presentation is shown to a team?


Lea Pica  15:41  

They didn’t get the story. And even if they got the story, they did not connect, why it was important enough to change their priorities. So when we are going in and presenting to stakeholders, who are busy, overwhelmed, and distracted. First of all, we’re trying to keep their attention while we’re presenting. 


And that’s challenging enough. This is why I teach it. However, we often frame recommendations in a way that is kind of mushy, vague, and soft. And what’s funny is I created a framework for that as well. But I sort of borrowed it from someone, it’s called the Smart recommendation system. 


It’s based on the SMART Goal Setting system. But it worked out really well where there’s a series of steps to see, do your recommendations, and connect to your insight. Do they show to demonstrate what the stakes are? So that’s another big piece are you going in there and showing your audience what is at stake, if they take no action? This is categorically missing. 


From what I see, I’ll see recommendations like implementing a new sales plan or monitoring current processes. That’s my favorite. Cuz not that we’re, it’s not like we’re supposed to be doing that anyway. 


But that’s the thing. If you’re going to change your audience’s priorities where they have to allocate, reallocate their budget, secure more headcount change, someone’s played around, you’re going to encounter resistance unless you can help them connect the dots of what they have at stake to lose or gain. And a plan for executing.


Kenny Soto  17:24  

The A in the PICO protocol is aesthetics. And I’ve been wrestling with what I’m going to ask next because I first discovered this recommendation from Seth Godin, and one of his keynote speeches that you can find on YouTube. 


People put words on presentations, some people argue that there is a specific ratio or number of words to put on a slide. Should presentation slides have words in them in general, how many words are too many? What’s the best way to approach that?


Lea Pica  17:58  

Great question. I don’t like to follow hard and fast rules. In general, I really think about how the slide is constructed and designed for the purpose of communicating your message at that moment. 


Seth Godin who I’m a huge fan of uses an extremely visually simplistic view, but he’s giving very high stake talks generally, at large-scale conference formats, this is a little bit different than a business meeting format. 


So sometimes in business meetings, I’ll have a slide with a statement on it, a quick sentence that’s in bold text that’s very easy to read, and I’m highlighting the words that I want people to pick out. But that’s generally the wordiest gets for the rest of the presentation. 


Really, the only words on my slides are a title that represents an observation that is reflecting what’s in the data that I’m showing, perhaps a few callouts or annotations. 


But what you won’t see is I prefer our walls of bullet points that are long run-on sentences. Because what that does is trigger the audience to start reading every word to themself, and then they visually and audibly tune you out. So you’re talking. 


They’re not listening. So in general, I don’t like to have full sentences unless I’m giving a quote or a full statement slide that simple. I like to keep certain phrases on one line, and is a very particular balance of having some text, mainly visual observations. And that’s it.


Kenny Soto  19:38  

When is someone ready to become a public speaker?


Lea Pica  19:43  

When they want to. It’s the kind of thing that you can prepare for it. And absolutely, I mean, this is again, what I teach. I love cultivating public speaking careers for folks. However, this is also Very much a kind of thing where you learn as you go, you really don’t know how to prepare for a lot of situations until you’re actually in it and you start to get your flow down. 


But if you really want that, you know, I have a book coming up this year that I’m excited about, which teaches a lot about public speaking. 


But there are lots and lots of resources, I would suggest making a prescription of watching a TED talk regularly to understand how they captivate audiences, how they speak, their body language, things like that, and what they share. 


There are excellent books on public speaking. But I would also say, you know, people can suggest Toastmasters and things like that. But what I would suggest is to start to look at events, and make friends in the network, who might be running events. 


That’s how I got my start, I had friends invited me to a conference. And then someone there sent my name over and I got invited to another one. And that’s really how it began. The other way I would say is, to start a blog, or Twitter account, share really high-value material, display yourself as an aspiring speaker, and just get as much practice as you can under your belt.


Kenny Soto  21:16  

And more questions. The next one is can you tell the audience more about your book?


Lea Pica  21:21  

Yes. So my book coming out is called story-driven data. And it is really meant to be it’s a big one. And it’s a comprehensive toolbox of the entire process of planning, designing, visualizing, and delivering a data business presentation. It’s everything that I wish I’d known about this process. 


And it’s meant to be a specific framework, you can use every single time with tons of exercises, sound bites from some of the best wisdom I’ve gotten from having guests on my podcast, and lots of visuals. So I’m really hoping it’s a way to get what I teach out to a much wider audience, if they can’t, aren’t able to be in one of my workshops or courses.


Kenny Soto  22:13  

The last question is hypothetical. Because time machines do not exist. What if a time machine did exist? And you can go back in time, 10 years into the past, knowing everything you know, right now? How would you accelerate the speed of your career?


Lea Pica  22:27  

Wow. Well, that is actually just before I started my business, what I would have done is two things. I would take sales, training classes, marketing classes, and personal finance classes. These are three of the things that I believe allow a person whether they want to stay as a practitioner and accompany or if they eventually want to make a jump as an entrepreneur. 


These were the skills that ended up serving me the most in whatever capacity, especially because a lot of practitioners want to make their own way in the world because they want to become thought leaders, right? We’ll make that jump, but we don’t actually know how to run a business. We don’t know how to create a whole job from our computer. 


So understanding cash flow management, you know, I discovered something called the Profit First system, which fundamentally changed my business into what felt like a hobby, a paid hobby into a real running business, but also from you know, marketing and sales. 


These are invaluable tools not only to sell yourself as a candidate for a job but also as an entrepreneur who needs to connect your services to an audience that may not know they need them.


Kenny Soto  23:54  

Then if anyone wants to say hello to you online, where can they find you?


Lea Pica  23:58  

Of course, I always welcome folks to connect with me on LinkedIn, and FLIR pika, and I always suggest sending me a note I always accept invites with notes and I say hello. But also you can also check out my podcast. That’s the best way to hang out with me online. And that’s at Lea The present beyond measure is shown.


Kenny Soto  24:19  

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom today on people’s digital marketing and thank you to you the listener for listening to another episode. And as always, I hope everyone has a great week.



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