The Story Economy Blog

Heart, Business, and Data: A Story in Three Parts

man with heart glassesIn the middle of a meeting last week with a client, their curtains fell down. The panels were attached with Velcro, and they unattached themselves loudly, peeling away from one end of the floor-to-ceiling window to the other.

“That happens,” my client said, surprised at the noise more than the curtains in a puddle on the floor.

To me, it was yet more evidence that they needed me to save them.

Let me back up.

I’ve been accused of being too emotional in business. Mostly by myself.

For years, I told myself: business is business and personal is personal.

At some point, it hit me that that was utter crap. We are people doing business with each other, and it’s pretty silly to pretend that we’re above being people for entire chunks of the day. I’ve come to understand that I do my best work when I’m emotionally invested in things.

But then, the curtains fall, and I get into trouble.

Part 2: When You Can’t See Straight

There are so many layers to this story, and I’m trying to figure out the minimum of what you need to know to get us to the point I want to make, so you can glean the helpful thing that will relate to your life.

It’s basically this: I’m helping the nursing home where my dad lived out his last months; specifically, I’m helping them rebrand, get a new web site, and do some basic marketing, especially as they embark on a capital campaign for an addition and remodel. It’s a non-profit organization, run by nuns. They are so good at what they do, those nuns and the staff who take on their mission. But they are a little bit terrible at knowing how to talk about it (in general, I think it’s fair to say that nuns don’t excel at branding).

Enter the emotional investment part: after my dad passed away last year, I told the nuns they had a blank check from me to help them. I feel a deep gratitude to these people who took care of my dad. They are embracing a job that, let’s face it, nobody else wants to do. And they are doing it because they want to, and because they find joy and meaning in it. Having just gone through what my family went through, what this organization is doing seems like the most important thing in the world. Their story should be out there in a much bigger way. They should have whatever they need to take care of old people. It should be the best of everything. It should be a freaking palace.

I’ve called in favors and sweet-talked colleagues right and left to help (“I have an exciting opportunity for you!”). I can’t really see straight because I want to help them so much. My thoughts race when I talk to them: Why is there so much money in the world for such non-essential things, and not enough for these very-essential things? What can I do to help them? Why am I not a socialite with connections to funding sources? They need everything! A web site! Social media! Advertising! A video! A new building! Better technology! Lots of money! Their curtains won’t even stay up!

This is the challenging part about emotional investment: knowing how to not let it kill you.

I know that I’m not alone in my tendency to let my heart lead me. It’s a human thing, and I’m convinced men and women do it with equal frequency (men just call it “gut” and “stakeholder buy-in”). So what do we do about it? That’s why I’m telling this very long story: because I want to share an insight just given to me that seems really helpful for this tendency.

Part 3: Finally . . . the Insight

Last month at Confab (a content strategy conference), I attended a session in which the presenter shared a case study of a client—a big hospital that needed a new content strategy (in other words, they needed to reorganize the content on their site). The project was huge, and consumed her for the better part of a year. Her methodology was interesting. But what really compelled me was when she talked about how—in those projects that wrap you up so tightly—there always comes a point of overwhelm, where you just don’t know where to go. And when that happens, she said, go back to the data. “If you listen, the data will tell you a story every time. It will tell you what your client thinks is important—not what you think is important.”

Go back to the data.

Going back to the data doesn’t mean turning off your heart. It just means letting the data into it.

So, in the case of my client, their data tells a story of a high occupancy rate in one wing and a struggling one in the other. That points the way to what we need to do a better job selling. The numbers also show low staff turnover—which means that internally the brand and mission are well understood. Qualitative data (testimonials, interviews, etc.) shows a strong reputation among referral partners and specific families the nursing home has served—but less recognition in the community overall. So we know what market we need to do a better job reaching. And looking at the demographics and problems of the decision-makers gives us the exact picture of who we’re talking to.

Yes, this organization needs help. But the data narrows it down, and paints a picture. The data says that while the challenges are big—and they are—this is an organization that is truly in it. The data suggests where energy would best be spent, and it tells me what I need to do. Which isn’t everything. And which doesn’t actually involve eradicating the pain that families feel watching their loved ones decline.

The great thing about following the data is that it allows it to stop being about you. And when you are so bought into a project and the people you’re serving, I think it’s the only way to both release your heart and keep your heart.

So, my heart-driven friend, the next time you’re watching the curtains fall, go back to the data. Because it may not be your job to pick them up.

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