Data today is revolutionizing how we think.

The executives in the C-suite of every firm are charged with making the tough decisions that guide companies to success or bring them out of crisis, and they’re well compensated for their trouble. But they don’t make those decisions on their own. Rather, they seek the advice of accountants, bankers, lawyers, and management consultants.

For some time now, we at Hill+Knowlton Strategies have advocated that C-suites need a Fifth Seat, to be filled by strategic communications advisors who help companies craft their public messaging. What’s become clear from our recent proprietary research is that data is an increasingly powerful form of influence that master communicators who fill the Fifth Seat must be able to appreciate, understand, and use to their advantage.

People Use Data to Build Their View of the World

Our data gurus at H+K conducted a unique survey this year to better understand how the general public interacts with and utilizes the growing mountain of data available to them. It is the first time ever that anyone has polled the public purely on their opinions and behaviors regarding data. One of the most surprising findings in the resulting report, “The Transformation of Influence,” is that 88 percent of the more than 4,400 people we surveyed said that they find data convincing when it’s used to support a claim, and 86 percent think it’s important to rely on data when they’re making major decisions. What kinds of decisions? Every kind. A surprising number of people want data to help them do everything from choosing the best laptop to buy (86 percent) to what music they should listen to (50 percent). One in five people even want to weigh the data on matters of faith.

This incursion of data into the lives and decisions of everyday people has major implications for corporate strategy, particularly when it comes to communications. More people trust data (53 percent) than the opinions of their close friends (47 percent). Influencers, whose opinions tend to carry great weight in their field of expertise, are 20 percent more likely than the general public to be persuaded by data, and 48 percent more likely to cite data and statistics as an important source of information when making a major decision.

The funny thing is, even as data becomes more important to everyday people, the number of people who really understand it remains abysmally low—only one in three Americans is data literate, according to our survey work.

Find the Story in the Data

Corporations and the communications advisors who work for them don’t have the luxury of being similarly innumerate. They must begin to think of data as a medium for storytelling—not only externally, but internally. This is where the data-literate person in the Fifth Seat can help. Companies often don’t know which numbers best tell their own stories. A statistically competent communicator will know how to ask the right questions, tease out the right numbers, and craft a messaging strategy that presents the most compelling data in the most compelling way.

The statistics and data visualizations that can help a company tell its story to the public have to follow a few rules: They must be compelling enough to grab someone’s attention, simple enough for people who are not comfortable with statistics to understand, and, most importantly, accurate. The worst thing that can happen to a company is to be caught in a lie, or even a half-truth, while trying to present supposedly objective data. Data-savvy influencers won’t forgive you, and neither will the public.

 Your Next Big Strategic Idea is In the Data

Companies also have to use the data at their disposal to reinvent their strategies—and here, too, the data-savvy person in the Fifth Seat can help. Companies have more data than ever about their customers’ habits and preferences, and using that data to offer better products and more individualized solutions is smart business. Yet so few companies are actually doing it.

We live at a time when data is abundant, and data literacy is scarce and therefore incredibly valuable. Companies have always needed bean-counters, but now corporate data no longer belongs solely to them. Welcome to the age of data interpreters, data storytellers, and data translators.