Updated: Oct 19, 2019
Statistics are everywhere. Ever since the “eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas” ad they’ve been used in marketing, books, blogs and social media to convince and cajole the reader into believing something new.
And they work. Statistics are a great way to back up what you write. They prove your point, make it relatable and provide context for ideas that are abstract and intangible.
So why do statistics get such a bad rap?
It’s all about credibility. As the joke goes, 73% of statistics are made up. What’s to stop us massaging the truth, or pulling random figures off the Internet and calling them hard data? In 2007, an advert claiming that “80% of dentists recommend Colgate” was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency. It said the statistic was misleading because Colgate was just one on a list of toothpastes the dentists had been asked to choose from—they hadn't singled Colgate out as their preferred brand.
And that’s the problem with statistics—no one really knows where they’ve come from. Even if they’re the result of a bona fide study, how do we know how that research was carried out? Gone are the days when we thought numbers couldn’t lie.
But that’s not the only problem with statistics. Let’s say the figures you read are 100% reliable. Even so, aren’t they sometimes a little… boring? No one wants to read a long list of data, or the minutiae of a research study that proves the author’s point. Used badly, statistics can suck the joy out of even the most interesting piece of writing.
And yet, used well, statistics are a great writing tool.They make abstract ideas concrete, give us credibility and offer a different way to prove our point. So how should we use statistics to enhance our writing instead of impairing it?
Think of statistics like stories
We know that stories sell ideas. But we forget that statistics make good stories too. When you’ve got research that supports your idea, don’t just share the numbers—tell it in the form of a narrative. Turning numbers into a story will make them easier to transition into the rest of your article—and a lot more interesting to your reader.
Don’t talk yourself out of a good point
It’s tempting to think more is more when it comes to data. But when we share multiple statistics we start to look a bit desperate. Don’t lose credibility by labouring your point—stick to one piece of research that packs a punch.
Make your research relevant
Research takes time, so make sure you’re making it count. Find data that supports the point you’re making, not the other way around. If you start your writing with an agenda to share a particular piece of research, you’ll end up shoehorning it into an unrelated topic.
Zoom in, zoom out
The most effective use of statistics is when you give your reader two different camera angles. Start with a close-up of a phenomenon at work (zoom in), and then a snapshot of the bigger picture (zoom out). For example, you might tell the story of your own family’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease before zooming out to share some shocking national statistics about the scale of dementia.
Used well, statistics are a great writing tool. They don't need to be boring, and you can increase your credibility by sharing data in the most engaging way possible. The more entertaining the better: your readers will be more likely to trust you if they're enjoying what you write.
Of course, the other side of it is that, used badly, statistics can sap your reader’s energy. So choose your data carefully, sharing only what's relevant, sticking to the headlines and telling it like a story where you can.
Eight out of ten readers will appreciate it.