Statistics are everywhere you look. Headlines in the news are so often based on stats – even more so during the pandemic. Social media is awash with charts, graphs and numbers plucked at random from reports. While increasing numbers of people are switching off, the cottage industry of online statistics producers should be enough to spark the curiosity of any communicator.
It can be very tricky to work out which statistics stand scrutiny alone and which need wider context. Perhaps of more concern, it’s also difficult to work out which ones are completely fabricated.
No figures are debated as much as the Coronavirus data. Whether it’s new infections, deaths, excess deaths, NHS capacity or numbers relating to the economic response, it seems everybody has had a stat to report and an associated opinion to offer.
But that isn’t a new phenomenon. The public discussion on poverty rates, unemployment, global temperature rises and more besides have been subject to fevered discussion – sometimes with malign forces misusing statistics.
This all provides an endless stream of opportunities for communicators, spinners and commentators, as well as everybody with a Twitter account.
Helpfully, the economist Tim Harford has written How to Make the World Add Up. His book contains a set of Ten Rules For Thinking Differently About Numbers (which is also his chosen subtitle). And from his thought-provoking list, there are plenty of useful tips to apply to the communications process too.
The first is to think about who is missing from the stats. For organisations, looking at one raw bit of data alone might be a nice short cut to a quick media hit. But trying to sell that number in isolation might leave you exposed if people ask for context. Imagine a media campaign claiming that employee satisfaction in your company was 85 per cent, but the data being based on a response rate of 1 per cent of the workforce – and all of them were middle managers. Your campaign won’t stand up to scrutiny and, moreover, you’ll be misleading people.
The second point that struck me from his list is not to underestimate the usefulness of official statistics. When you’re looking for a news line about your organisation, comparing wider averages and trends can often be the thing that makes your campaign stand out. Imagine your study on employee satisfaction had a high response rate across all levels of your organisation and it showed people were much happier than the average in your industry – that’s a story worth telling (provided your questionnaire was fair, of course).
In fact, all ten of his rules have interesting points for communicators, as well as anyone wanting to make sense of statistics. He uses a case study of a Potato Salad Kickstarter that raised $55,000 to remind us that it’s important to ‘Get the back story’ to statistics rather than assuming Kickstarter can get us all rich (very few Kickstarters raise much money at all).
He draws on his own experience of crowded London Underground services when he urges us to ‘Ponder your personal experience’ (average occupancy stats cover the whole length of a journey – not just the busy bits). And his ‘Step back and enjoy the view’ rule neatly debunks misleading shock journalism comparing murder rates between London and New York (both places are getting less violent. In an exceptional month London might experience more murders than New York, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting more dangerous).
But it was Harford’s Golden Rule that is most pertinent for communicators. And it’s a very simple one: be curious. Wherever you look in your organisation there’s bound to be oodles of interesting stats. If you keep asking questions and probing the data, sooner or later you’ll find a story to tell one audience or another. When you do it, however, just be sure you step back and check Tim’s ten rules, or you might get caught out.
And if Tim whets your appetite for either debunking or delighting in data, you might like to look at the guidance for interpreting polls and election data produced by MRS and IMPRESS.
Max Wilkinson is a senior account manager at Camargue