Do the math – three ways you can use statistics to get your message across
44 intern and history student Nathan Weich has put down his textbook and picked up his calculator to investigate the power of numbers in communications…
Numbers are supposed to make things easy. Not sure which toothpaste to buy? 8 out of 10 dentists recommend Toothpaste A. Sorted. Uncertain about whether you’ll need to take an umbrella out with you? There’ll be a 90% chance of rain at 12pm. Decision made.
But what happens when the information you receive is contradictory, confused, and inconsistent? In an age where data – and the tools to analyse and share it – is more readily available than ever before, can we still find comfort in numbers?
Perhaps it’s a case of too many cooks. What we’re finding is that the more voices claiming to possess varying statistics for the same subject, the further away the truth seems, and the less faith our society has in the ability of numbers to convey the reality of the matter.
When Michael Gove – in the run up to the referendum – said that people in this country had had enough of experts, he was summing up the public’s weariness of being fed a constant diet of figures and stats which are hard to relate to and only confuse the situation.
There are also many examples of people manipulating statistics for their own ends. I’d like to use another example from recent politics (stay with me). If we look back at the fact-blitzed 2015 general election, we can find communication reaching levels of statistical saturation. The Shadow Chancellor, for instance, declared people were £1,800 worse off thanks to the government. The Prime Minister stated 94% of working households were better off; and the Deputy Prime Minister claimed 27 million people were £825 better off in terms of the tax they paid. Phew! All statements were true – albeit conjured with a little statistical jiggery – but all were meaningless because they presented three different realities.
So, amidst the figure-related frenzy, can we rely on statistics to communicate our message, knowing that people are increasingly likely to take them with a pinch of salt? How can you use statistics in a way that will be meaningful to your audience?
1. Be clear about how you arrived at your figures.
Nothing is more likely to trigger scepticism about the validity of your data than hiding how you got your numbers. Be open and honest. If you used a survey, explain who was surveyed, how many people were sampled and whether the sample is representative of the population. Clarity and transparency are the best ways to get your audience on side.
2. What are you trying to communicate to your audience?
You should always consider the message your numbers are trying to deliver. It’s ok to remind your audience why they should care by giving them an explicit interpretation – it’ll give your data an emotional impact, and make sure it hits home.
3. Make them look good! Use visual tools such as tables, graphs and maps to make your statistics more understandable to your audience.
People are hardwired to respond to imagery. Infographics add a bit of pizzazz to otherwise dry statistics and make them more intuitive and relatable.
But visual tools which are overloaded with information can be just as confusing – or just plain boring. Keeping them simple and presenting them cleanly will give them a much bigger impact on your audience.
It’s clear that numbers still have a vital role to play in how we communicate with each other. But, if you want to use them, you need to make sure you overcome any potential obstacles. Just remember the winning formula:
Present your data in an engaging way + some transparency about where you got your stats (and don’t forget to show your audience why the numbers matter) = a sure-fire equation to statistical success.