I have built my career around helping leaders make sense and take the right action based on the data coming from their organizations. My job has been to make sure that the data is relevant, meaningful, and actionable. Another way of saying this is that data must be instantly useful for the reader. Data that generates confusion is not useful for the reader. Data should compel the decision maker to take the right type of action for the benefit of the organization.

Early in my career, I often made the mistake in assuming that people would naturally reach the same conclusions I did when I provided people with data in the form of a simple chart or graph without any additional context. I assumed my audience, which usually consisted of senior level executives, would simply take the time to look at whatever visualization was provided and reach what I saw was the obvious conclusion. But often they would simply glance at the data and react to the first thing they happened to glance at.

Context always needs to surround the data that is provided. Sometimes that context can be found in the data content as I have suggested in my PMO Analytics: How to be the Supplier of Relevant Insights article. (Link). But most of the time the data needs to be introduced with context. This can be done with headlines. Headlines provide the “So What?” explanation for your data. They help ensure that your audience shares your interpretation of the data. In short, headlines help to set the table before the meal is served.

How are Headlines Deployed in Reporting?

Headlines are generally deployed either at the beginning of the report or at the header of a dashboard. Thus, they always precede the presentation of a more complex set of data. I have provided a couple of examples below illustrating how Headlines can be deployed.

Illustration 1 – The Headline Page:

The headline page is best presented at the beginning of a metric-heavy deck. This page can be used to provide the overall story that the metrics in the deck tell. It can also be used to provide information on what changed since the last report out.

The biggest thing to remember here is that headlines provide context. They are needed to ensure that the wrong assumptions are not made about data that is in your reporting. They need to:

  • Be meaningful and newsworthy
  • Be accurate and they cannot be misleading
  • Be constructed based on the needs and preferences of your audience
  • Provide insight by helping to explain what changed from one time period to the next

The following shows an illustration of what a headline page might look like at the beginning of a Project Management for Today briefing:




You will note that this provides an overall executive summary for what is going to follow in the briefing. In so doing, it provides a series of newsworthy points that help to position the set of data the reader is about to look at.

Illustration 2: Headlines as Part of a Dashboard Header:

Headlines can and should also be used as part of a dashboard header. Two or three bullet points will go a long way towards helping to ensure that the wrong assumptions aren’t made around data presented in the Dashboard. Like the headlines shown in a headlines page, headlines in a dashboard header should:

  • Be meaningful and newsworthy
  • Be accurate and they cannot be misleading
  • Be constructed based on the needs & preferences of your audience
  • Provide insight by helping to explain what changed from one time-period to the next

Below is an example of a dashboard page with embedded headlines.




Notice how the headlines tell the story behind the data by first explicitly indicating what the so what in this chart is (i.e. drop in sales). It next provides insights into why the reduction in sales occurred. It concludes with what corrective action is going to be taken to reverse the drop. In short, it tells a meaningful story for the audience that the audience will care about. It provides context in a very concise way that the audience can quickly come to understand before diving more deeply into the data.

Headlines as a means of conveying the intended message behind your data:

It is never advisable to publish a data set without context. Data sets, no matter how beautifully presented, can be misinterpreted. It is up to the presenter to make sure the interpretation is clear. As I have illustrated, Headlines hold the key towards ensuring the meaning behind a presentation is clear (particularly in data-driven presentations). I hope I have provided you with some ideas on deploying headlines in your future data-driven presentations.


Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Karl Hallgrimsson

Karl Hallgrimsson

Co-Founder: Project Management for Today

Karl has worked in many different organizations over his 18+ Year career. These organizations include TeleTech, IBM, DaVita, and Hewlett Packard, Inc. He has served as a change agent in each organization, either by building up strong operational rigor in PMO's, or by greatly improving an organization's Analytics capability. Karl's contributions to this site provides practical recommendations suiting a variety of environments, which will be best suited for readers who are interested in updating their Analytics, PMO Operational, or Portfolio Management capabilities.
Karl Hallgrimsson - Co-Founder
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