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Making Data Matter Means Asking the Right Questions

By Kat French

Seth Godin Quote

There’s a lot of talk out there about “big data.” Last week I got a t-shirt from

To succeed at branded content, Godin suggested companies need to “set people up in an office down the

street, only visit them once a month, and give them really significant metrics—not about pageviews, but about mattering. And give them the resources—not too much, just enough—to go do work that matters.”

When asked what metrics measure whether you’re doing work that matters, Seth Godin replied “I think the only one that I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone?” And just like that, Godin identified the fulcrum-point question for any content marketer (or media maker) in the world.

Rachel Aaron’s question: What are the best conditions for maximizing my creative output?

Science fiction and fantasy author Rachel Aaron is known for her successful “Eli Monpress” series, published by Orbit/Hachette, as well as the critically-acclaimed Paradox Trilogy. She’s also known for writing incredibly fast.

Why does that matter? In the modern publishing world, the data shows a clear correlation between publishing more often and making more money. When Rachel started writing fiction full time, she needed to maximize her creative output. So she set about an experiment.

In the first part, she adjusted her process so she was more prepared when she sat down to draft. That small tweak doubled her daily word count, without increasing the amount of time she spent writing. Then, for two months she recorded the conditions of every writing session. She checked the data for patterns and was surprised by the results.

Her best time of day to write was not mornings, as she’d expected, but afternoons.

She wrote twice as much in coffeeshops as she wrote at home.

When she had at least 5 hours, her words-per-hour was three times higher than when she had only an hour.

Armed with this information, she arranged her schedule so that all her writing time was her best writing time, and saw huge gains in productivity. In the third part of her experiment, she learned that by cutting scenes she wasn’t excited about writing, she not only wrote faster, but the end product was a book readers enjoyed more. After the experiment, Rachel took what she learned, and created the nonfiction book 2K to 10K: How to Write Better, Write Faster, and Write More of What You Love. It’s currently in the Amazon Kindle Top 10 list for books on writing skills.

Bret Parker’s question: Can small changes affect my Parkinson’s symptoms?

As wearables like FitBit become more commonplace, it’s natural to wonder what power these devices and their data have to revolutionize healthcare. Unfortunately, this data isn’t necessarily all that useful to doctors. In an NPR story from earlier this year, a Dr. Paul Abramson described a patient who showed up with multiple Excel spreadsheets full of data — and no good way to make use of it. “Going through it and trying to analyze and extract meaning from it was not really feasible,” he says.

But for Bret Parker, the problem was more urgent. Parker suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive illness that affects movement and causes tremors. The New York resident enrolled in a pilot study to find out if an activity tracker could help measure the severity of his tremors, and to see if they were affected by small changes in diet, sleep patterns, or even the time of day he takes his medication.

While it’s difficult for an individual to meticulously log these kinds of details, a wearable device can help make it easier. “This is going to be a battle between me and Parkinson’s in the years to come,” he says. “As it advances, it means I’ve got to be better and smarter at my role in it.”

Your takeaway: What one question should you be asking?

What do Seth, Rachel and Bret have in common? Each one has identified a “fulcrum point question,” a point of leverage where relatively small efforts can produce huge gains.

For Seth, answering his question creates a simple yes/no test capable of elevating the morass of content marketing from a spam-fest to storytelling nirvana.

For Rachel, answering her question allowed her to not just realize a fivefold increase in creative output, but build a replicable system to help other writers.

For Bret, the answers he’s seeking will enable him make the absolute most of his life while wrestling with a chronic, debilitating illness.

As these examples demonstrate, finding your fulcrum point question often means identifying your biggest pain point. More often than not, they’re the same. This may be why so few people and organizations focus on finding a fulcrum point.

Another reason we avoid seeking fulcrum point questions, is that we fear the answer.

As individuals and institutions, we often avoid thinking about our most difficult problems, which can seem overwhelming and impossible. Instead, we focus on bucket-and-bailing optimization, instead of fixing the hole in the boat. That way, we can feel like we’re doing something and making progress, without having to address bigger, scarier issues.

Another reason we avoid seeking fulcrum point questions, is that we fear the answer. In business, a fulcrum point question might require rethinking your whole business model. In life, it might mean overhauling your lifestyle and habits. That’s pretty intimidating stuff.

Archimedes once said “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.” Or at least something like it, since he was speaking ancient Greek. The courage to ask the right questions and to act upon the answers gives you tremendous power.

Are you ready to wield it?

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