Data-Driven Storytelling: How CISOs Can Win Over The C-Suite With Metrics

Dec 29, 2023

This article was written by Paul Ponzeka, CTO at Abacus Group, and originally appeared in Forbes.

The chief information security officer (CISO) role has matured significantly over recent years, evolving from a purely technical position to a strategic business enabler. Now, more firms are allotting dedicated time during their board meetings to focus on cybersecurity.

But while the CISO may be more visible at the board level than before, many are still struggling to get their cybersecurity message heard and understood at the top table. In fact, a Ponemon Institute study found that only 9% of security leaders feel they are highly effective in communicating cybersecurity risks to the board and other C-level executives, despite Gartner insights highlighting the importance of a proactive approach.

No single person is to blame here. Many members of the C-suite lack a solid foundation in technology, making it challenging to understand the metrics being presented—and CISOs themselves can have problems explaining the value and effectiveness of security investments. As well as causing frustration, this communication gap threatens a firm’s overall security and business posture.

Without the support and understanding of the board, cybersecurity will not get the resources or attention it needs, leaving firms vulnerable to security risks that can disrupt business operations and lead to serious financial losses. But how can the CISO help the board connect the dots? The answer lies in using the correct data to construct compelling narratives, employing the ancient art of storytelling to enhance decision-making in the boardroom and secure that crucial cybersecurity buy-in.

The Disconnect

CISOs often face communication challenges at the C-suite table, setting them apart from their peers. For example, the chief finance officer (CFO) can confidently present a P&L report, knowing that the board will readily grasp its significance. In contrast, the CISO often faces challenges in getting their own metrics recognized and understood, particularly by non-technical board members.

Many business executives are still unfamiliar with the concepts and language of technology. Non-technical C-suite members can view cybersecurity as a complex and specialized "black box," preventing them from fully grasping the business-wide implications of some security decisions. CISOs, therefore, face an uphill battle when it comes to education.

Now, as SEC cyber rules continue to push security oversight and knowledge into the boardroom—and CISOs increasingly face legal culpability for their organization’s data breaches—it’s in everyone’s best interest to bridge the communication gap. To translate cyber risk more effectively to the board, the CISO must tell a powerful story that illustrates the potential business consequences of such risks.

To make this happen, CISOs will need to use the language of business rather than technical jargon. Yet, they shouldn’t underestimate the power of metrics. For example, the correct actionable data related to risk management, compliance and incident response can supercharge the storytelling process by aligning cyber risk with the business narrative.

Leveraging Actionable Data And Crafting Compelling Data Stories

CISOs must first ensure they have complete visibility and control over the actionable data they need within a simple and intuitive framework. Of course, this requires a certain level of data maturity within the organization. Without the necessary skills, processes and infrastructure to derive valuable insights from data, security leaders will struggle to quantify cyber risks in business terms.

There are several steps CISOs can take to bolster their organization’s data maturity and enhance cyber risk analytics. For example, they could collaborate with trusted external experts, harnessing their expertise, resources and perspectives to strengthen data insights and refine the quantification and communication of cyber risks. They can also leverage tools like a service dashboard to help board members grasp cybersecurity and compliance risks. The dashboard could provide a holistic view of the organization’s technology platform, integrating data from multiple sources to nurture a shared understanding.

With this data maturity in place, CISOs should determine which key cybersecurity metrics most effectively capture the different areas of business risk, such as risk exposure, financial implications, reputational concerns or potential downstream impacts on consumer confidence. These metrics can be used to create a sliding scale for conveying cyber risks, empowering the board with a clear visual representation to facilitate better decision-making.

CISOs should also ensure contextualization when presenting cybersecurity metrics. Providing context to raw security data is increasingly important in making it relatable and understandable for those without security expertise. Using data visualization tools and techniques can also help translate data into an easy-to-understand graphical representation of security metrics and their importance.

The Art Of Data-Driven Cybersecurity Storytelling

While data is essential, it cannot provide a complete picture on its own. However, CISOs can use these metrics to craft compelling narratives that win over the C-suite. The challenge lies in identifying and conveying the right data that captures and effectively translates the essence of risk.

To align cybersecurity risks with the organization’s specific objectives and goals, CISOs will need to use effective storytelling techniques to convey the potential business consequences of inaction.

They must resist the urge to delve into technical details and instead use data to highlight how cybersecurity risks can (and will) affect client growth, cost expansion, regulatory compliance and a wealth of other business factors.

Painting a vivid picture of these consequences will help the board understand the importance of proactive and robust cybersecurity measures. Narrative arcs also need to be tailored to the distinct needs and objectives of each firm. Therefore, close collaboration between CISOs and other C-level executives will be crucial in establishing a shared understanding of the inherent connection between cyber and business risks.

Data-driven storytelling has the power to catalyze action and foster security buy-in from the board. By leveraging relevant and compelling data to craft powerful cybersecurity narratives, CISOs can effectively communicate the impact of cyber risk on business objectives, financial performance and reputation. This will empower security leaders to decisively bridge the gap between what they say and what the C-suite hears, driving collaboration between the two sides of the business.


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