“You can tell compelling stories through data” – In Conversation with Dean Owen
By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —
Full disclosure: I’ve known Dean Owen for more than a decade. He’s been a colleague, a mentor, a client, and always a friend. Joining Dean “In Conversation” was a great excuse to have lunch and ask him about things we don’t usually have time to discuss: his career trajectory, how he’s feeling about his still kind-of-new job as Senior Manager for Marketing & Communications at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), and how he makes complex health data understandable to non-data heads. In keeping with our usual conversations, we also talked about Eric Clapton.
Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?
A: I knew I wanted to be a journalist when I was seven years old. It was the weekend President Kennedy was assassinated. I was glued to the television, and read everything I could. On Sunday morning, I watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV. From that moment on, as I watched the story unfold, I was transformed and transfixed. Fifty years later, I had a book published on JFK after interviewing 100 people who knew him.
Q: So did you become a journalist?
A: Yes. I went to The University of California, Berkeley and then worked for a tiny newspaper in California called the Oakdale Leader. We had a staff of three, and we did everything. I worked 75-hour weeks and had a blast. I wrote about sports even though I’d never watched sports in my life! That led to a couple of other journalism jobs until I switched over to the PR side, though I still do freelance travel writing for The Los Angeles Times.
Q: We first met more than a decade ago when you were leading communications at World Vision. How did you go from local California journalism to working on global health?
A: My wife and I moved to the Seattle area in the late 1980s and I had a couple of great jobs, first leading communications at the then-brand-new Washington State Health Department, and then working for then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire as her public affairs director. But I didn’t want to be a lifer in state government. I wanted something more interesting and meaningful. I joined World Vision in 1996, and held a variety of senior communications positions over the course of 19+ years.
Q: What’s the transition to IHME been like?
A: Amazing. I went from an organization with more than 40,000 people working in nearly 100 countries 325 people in one building – but with huge global reach. IHME is fast-paced and fascinating. I have a great Marketing and Communications team, and extraordinary colleagues in Global Engagement. IHME feels like 85 percent Seattle start-up and 15 percent academic institution.
Q: What excites you most about your job?
A: The dedication and focus of staff are the most exciting things about my job. IHME Director Dr. Chris Murray is a visionary. He and the entire organization are on a mission to educate, enlighten, and inspire people to use data to improve their lives. Everyone I work with is committed to achieving this mission in a way that’s credible and sustainable, and that draws on data sources from all around the world. My job is to help bring this massive amount of information to the right audiences so they can change the way they think about health systems and practices.
Q: Data-driven storytelling is all the rage these days. What have you learned about it at IHME?
A: You can tell very compelling stories through data. For example, in mid-June we published a paper on obesity globally in The New England Journal of Medicine. The paper found that 2.2 billion people – about 1/3 of the planet – are overweight or obese. Moreover, the US has the highest percentage of obese children and youth in the world – 12 percent and, interestingly, Egypt has the highest percentage of obese adults – about 35 percent. The story was picked up in the mainstream media in more the 50 nations. And it ranks in the 99th percentile of social media buzz among articles in all other media journals.
Also, data stories can be very personal. IHME’s annual Roux Prize recognizes people who have used our data to improve public health. Our first winner was the former mayor of Cali, Colombia, Rodrigo Guerrero. In the 1990s, Cali had an alarmingly high murder rate. Most people assumed this was primarily due to drug activity. But Mayor Guerrero looked at the data, mapped incidents of violence, and discovered this wasn’t the full story. He saw clear patterns: Most people were being killed on weekends, and the murders usually involved alcohol, money, and firearms.
He implemented a series of reforms – ranging from improving street lighting to strict gun control laws – that significantly drove down murder rates; Cali has since served as a model for other cities in Colombia and the region. It’s an amazing story of the difference that one determined person can make if they have the right data.
Q: Do you think that data-driven stories and personal stories are at odds in our business?
A: It’s all about knowing who you’re communicating with. You need to give people who love data just enough of a personal story that they are touched or moved. But if you go overboard, it likely will turn them off. On the other hand, people who crave stories need the context that data brings. You need to balance the messages and present them in a way that’s compelling.
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
A: Helping brilliant scientists speak in 10th grade English. I encourage colleagues to pretend they’re talking to their parents or children about their work, or pretend they’re at a party and just met someone who doesn’t know or understand what they do. How would they explain it? It’s important to remember that effective communication is more about the information recipient – what they’re ready, willing, and able to process – than what the communicator wants to convey.
Q: Anything else that’s on your mind lately about work?
A: I’ve been reading about the value of time to think and reflect over the course of the week. It’s so important to take time every day to think about what could be happening. To reflect on what’s possible. Connections among people, issues, and events. It enables one to work more effectively. Otherwise, you’re on rollerblades all the time – just reacting to what’s in the forefront.
Q: What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
A: [No hesitation] February 22, 1970 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Eric Clapton was performing with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. It was the second time I’d been to a Clapton concert and I met him that night. I’ve seen him nine times in concert. A lifelong devotion to his life and music.
Q: Any unusual claims to fame?
A: I’ve met five U.S. presidents. And, like you, Joy, have been to North Korea.