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Watch Your Figures: How to Use Numbers To Tell A Story

April 22nd, 2014 by Ry Sullivan

How to use numbers to tell your story

In an age of 140-character limits and fierce competition for social feed mindshare, crafting short and powerful stories is a necessary skill. Using data is one strategy that can help express complex ideas quickly while still packing a punch. Incorporating numbers can be an effective storytelling approach because it allows people to include a lot of information in a short space—like a statistic, chart, or infographic. Additionally, numbers can help make more abstract ideas real and lend authority to content. As Bing Gordon of KPCB recently advised people pitching startup ideas to VCs: “Make the numbers tell your story.”

One reason many people shy away from using data in social storytelling is that numbers can confuse an audience. Data should never be befuddling—it should make content more understandable. You may be wondering, “How you can use numbers to make your content more valuable?” Luckily, several strategies already exist:

1. Use comparisons to provide context

It’s likely that you will know more about the subject you’re talking about than your audience. It’s important to remember this when using numbers so that you can speak in understandable terms. Try to provide helpful comparisons that your audience can relate to easily. When conveying the size of the moon, it’s not helpful to say, “The moon has a circumference of 10,921 kilometers.” Instead, saying “the moon is roughly ¼ the size of the Earth” provides better context.

The Washington Post recently made a splash by employing this same strategy in a post about the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The author wanted to convey how difficult it would be to locate a black box signal 15,000 feet underwater. The post included an infographic that helped me understand just how deep the signal was—further down than the wreck of the Titanic and deeper than any passenger carrying sub has gone!

Screenshot 2014-04-22 15.25.50

2. Hook them with your main takeaway

Interesting data is oftentimes the result of much research and effort. However, when presenting data to your audience, tell them the main takeaway and don’t get them lost in the details. Presenting too much supporting data can lessen the focus on what you want your audience to remember. Give them the takeaway up front, and if they’re hooked, let them go into the details as they please.

Check out this tweet from the Wall Street Journal on the prevalence of breastfeeding. There’s a lot of supporting evidence in the graphic—did people’s mother breastfeed? How comfortable are you with breastfeeding? etc.—but the message up front conveys their main point: 82% of mothers surveyed have breastfed in public. This is more digestible to an audience than presenting all the statistics at once. (Note: a nice article on how data can be simplified for data visualizations recently appeared in Harvard Business Review blog)


3. Use numbers to capture the spirit of exciting content

 You shouldn’t use numbers as a crutch for bad content; rather, they should capture the spirit of exciting content and make it comprehensible. While it’s easy to spout off statistics—Derek Jeter (currently) has 3,331 hits, 129,085,403 people voted in the 2012 Presidential election—the numbers should also be somehow memorable for your audience, too. Some strategies for making your stories stand out with data include saying why the data is interesting. For example, Derek Jeter’s hit total is more than Yankees greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, or Mickey Mantle.

Walt Mossberg tweeted about a study on developers’ career earnings expectations in which he noted, “Majority of engineers believe they will become millionaires, study says.”  The idea that many developers are very optimistic about their careers is interesting—especially for a writer like Mossberg whose followers are in the technology space. The data helps hit the point home by saying how optimistic engineers are (believe they will accrue > $1,000,000) and how many engineers think this (>50%).


4. Choose your words carefully

The language you use to present your data can also have subtle but important impacts on your audience. Psychologists have shown how people can bias their opinions on choices depending on whether an option is framed as a cost or gain. For example, doctors are more likely to recommend a risky operation if they’re told 90% of patients will live compared to if they’re told 10% of patients will die. The numbers haven’t changed in either scenario, but the way the audience interprets the numbers probably has. Be mindful of presentation!

In a recent post by The Atlantic about US scientific beliefs, the headline states, “A Majority of Americans Still Aren’t Sure About the Big Bang.” Imagine if the article had instead framed the statement as “A Minority of Americans Confidently Believe in the Big Bang.” It’s the same data being referenced, but the message’s tone has changed.

Screenshot 2014-04-22 15.34.25

5. Use numbers to build trust

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is credited with saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Numbers can be powerful storytelling devices since they lend authority to the author, but they should also be handled with care. Data shouldn’t aim to confuse or trick your audience, it should be used to inform. Using wrong or misleading numbers in storytelling is a violation of the trust you should be looking to build with others—and that’s bad 100% of the time.

For reference, here are a couple examples on how not to use data in chartsmaps, and infographics.

[Image credit: The Sales Blog, Washington PostThe Atlantic]


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 at 3:37 pm and is filed under other. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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