A Numbers Game

From an early stage in my PR career I’ve been aware of how important numbers can be in getting your message across. One of my favourite textbooks when I was a student was How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff which explains how you make any set of figures support your argument if you present them in the right way.

I was reminded of this last week when I went along to a CIPR Scotland seminar in Edinburgh on “Storytelling with Numbers”. It covered the growth of Data Journalism and the increasingly creative methods which organisations are using to present facts and figures to their key audiences.

One of the startling facts to come out of the CIPR event was that 71 per cent of adults have poor numeracy skills. It’s hardly surprising therefore that many organisations are now publishing data in graphic form. For example, bar charts are good for showing comparisons while line charts can demonstrate a change over time.

One thing which does irritate me is the way in which some journalists are often lazy in the way they report figures. If the proportion of the public buying widgets has risen from 20 per cent to 30 per cent, the media will usually call that a 10 per cent increase. It isn’t! It is an increase of 10 percentage points. (Given that the number of widget buyers has risen by half, it’s actually a 50 per cent increase.)

If you can bring yourself to think back to the 2016 European Referendum campaign, the one statistic that everyone remembers is the figure of £350 million written on the side of a big red bus. Whether or not the figure accurately represented the amount sent by the UK to Europe every week doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it clearly struck a chord with the public and was hugely valuable to the Brexiteers.

Many newspapers and broadcasters now get some of their more interesting stories from the data that they collect from surveys and FOI requests. Last week a survey showed that 63 per cent of Conservative Party members think that the breakup of the UK is a price worth paying in order to secure Brexit. A great political story, especially given that the full name of the party is “Conservative and Unionist”.

Long ago when I had my first proper job in a Glasgow PR firm, my boss told me that the easiest way to create a story was to conduct a survey. Some things never change.


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