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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Statistics? *Yawn*

One of the primary difficulties in being persuasive and making a lasting impression on your audience (especially among experienced professionals) is not being viewed as credible.  To counteract this drawback, you can boost your perceived credibility by referencing statistics.  Unfortunately, people's eyes glaze over and they stop paying attention as soon as you start reciting rows of numbers.  Think of the last time you were reading an article, a study, or a book and you came upon a page full of charts, graphs, tables, or numbers.  Even though I have taken statistics courses, I unfortunately find myself skipping over these sections so I can get to the conclusions and interpretations section.  Is a part of this my fault for being lazy and not wanting to think hard?  Yes, it is.  But, I believe another major aspect of the issue is how statistics are actually presented.

There is a proper way of presenting statistics that has a much higher chance of connecting with your audience and making a lasting impression.  To do this, you must present statistics in a more "human" way and place the numbers in contexts that non-statisticians would be familiar with.  You must use everyday examples that people are familiar with and utilize their intuition by incorporating scales and relationships that they will understand and be able to relate with.

As I've discussed in previous entries, analogies and concrete examples are effective tools for connecting with your audience and tapping into their intuitive visual abilities.  These strategies are especially  important when dealing with numbers because most of us don't get much practice with interpreting quantitative data.  During the rare times that we do find ourselves in such a situation, we are often too stubborn or embarrassed to admit our numerical illiteracy.

To drive these points home, consider a recent commercial by Toyota for the Camry:
                        Video link:

Here is the relevant quote from the actor in the ad:
Actor: "The reinvented 2012 Camry Hybrid is rated at 43 miles on the gallon. That's the length of two football fields that are each 21 and a half miles long.  Just to put that in perspective for you."

The actor then grabs hold of a gallon of milk and starts drinking it.  This tactic is meant to emphasize the original statistic even more and allow people to visualize how much a gallon actually is.  The ad connects that small amount of milk to the length of two football fields.  It's attempting to use scales and visuals that most people will hopefully be familiar with.

This ad is a simple example but I believe it effectively showcases what I initially discussed.  Numbers must be placed in a familiar perspective or else your audience isn't going to make the effort to truly understand their meaning and scale.

Environmentalists can also apply these lessons to properly communicate environmental problems such as the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Often times, when this issue is discussed, the authors describe the size of the plastic debris by comparing it to the size of Texas or some other incredibly large area that people can't effectively visualize.

Case in point:

"The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas."

To remedy this, other units of measurements can be used.  For instance, football fields and skyscrapers are objects that most people would be more familiar with and can more effectively visualize.  The size of the garbage pile can be discussed in these terms instead.  Large objects such as these are still not as human-friendly as smaller objects such as houses, cars, and tennis balls but using these is still an improvement over what is currently done.

Having said all this, you must keep in mind who your audience is.  If you are dealing with technical and quantitative experts who live and breathe numbers every day then your attempts at making statistics more relateable and human-friendly are going to be a waste of time.  Your efforts might even backfire because these experts might think you are questioning their competence and level of quantitative expertise.  The strategies covered here are more relevant when dealing with individuals outside the quantitative fields.  These tactics can be effective with people who don't consistently deal with numbers in a thorough and meaningful manner.

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