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By the Numbers: The Power of Statistics

Everyone loves playing the percentages.

You find them filling up incredibly cool-looking infographics and looming large in PowerPoint presentations. Speakers emphasize them in their talks, pronouncing the magic number loudly, then pausing to give everyone in the audience time to let the magnitude of the pronouncement sink in.

They are powerful tools, those astonishing statistics, especially when used wisely.

So use them wisely.

Add some context

A number may not make the point on its own.

A good statistic gets even better when you can offer people a way to understand it. Veterans call it the “how many to the moon” approach, as in: McDonald’s has sold 100 billion hamburgers since it first opened in 1955. That’s enough to circle the earth 52 times, and then still have enough left over to stack to the moon and back, says Neil DeGrasse Tyson. (He says he did the math and I believe him.)

You don’t have to go to the moon; just reference something the audience can grasp.

The American Heart Association took note of the successful campaign to increase breast-cancer awareness, and used that information to make a point about women and heart disease:

  • One out of 3 women die of heart disease
  • One out of 31 women die of breast cancer
  • More women are affected by heart disease than all forms of cancer combined

More power to you if you choose to find multiple facts and work out a comparison, but usually that’s not necessary. The information is out there to discover — just remember to use reliable sources.

Increase the awe factor

The right phrasing can also make a number more relatable.

Most people know that health care is one of Nashville’s big industries. A few people might be surprised to hear that health care accounts for nearly 250,000 jobs in the city.

You can amp up the impact of that big figure by saying the city has a quarter of a million jobs in or in service of health care.

And instead of noting that those jobs make up more than 25 percent of Nashville employment, make the stat personal:

1 out of 4 jobs in Nashville is related to health care.

This trick works equally well with very large numbers and very small ones.

Do some research

I was writing a piece about employee theft, and came upon a flabbergasting “fact.” Seventy-five percent of employees in the United States steal from their employers! The statistic showed up in dozens of articles and white papers and websites. And the credited source: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That sounds reliable, right?

So we appeared to be a nation of people who nonchalantly grab money out of the cash register, pad our expense reports and help ourselves to everything we find that isn’t nailed down at our jobs.

I always try to go straight to the source of any statistic or fact I find, so I began the search for this U.S. Chamber of Commerce report. It was not easy, because it was published decades ago. But I did find it, and it turns out the definition of “steal” was pretty broad. Not only did it include grabbing a pen from the supply room, it included stealing “time” by making a personal phone call or reading an article on the company-provided computer.

I had just found the worst kind of statistic – technically true, totally misleading. I did not use it.

Check the date

If you haven’t guessed already, I use statistics in articles and infographics fairly often. I’m grateful that there are so many organizations that do the legwork of measuring important, illuminating or even silly facts, that I can grab (and credit properly).

Finding a good statistic is not a problem. The most frustrating moments in my searches come when I find a remarkable statistic that perfectly fits my goal, and then realize that the data is 30 years old.

Things change, so check your sources and look for the most up-to-date data on your topic.

Mark Twain famously said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. These four steps require a bit of time and effort, but they keep your statistics honest.