Statistics get a bad name.
In fact here are some statistics about statistics that I found:
Now a wee bit of background before I step on my soapbox.
I grew up reading magazines peppered with mad statements like '97% of women will be cruel to their bodies today' and 'the average person swallows eight spiders per year while they're sleeping'. As a result, I've developed a natural scepticism when it comes to these things. However, that doesn't stop me lapping them up with avid curiosity.
Along with many others, I seem to connect with this nonsensical style - yet I have been known to glaze over with eye rolling boredom when presented with meaningful statistics that could actually have a huge impact on my own life and personal safety. Weird…
It's actually a big part of my job as an internal comms troubleshooter to communicate statistics in the workplace effectively. To make them count, give them impact and resonance. However, with widespread internet access we are constantly surrounded by statistics, and as a result, I've seen scepticism grow exponentially and a general ‘yawning’ epidemic sweep across organisations at the mere mention of statistical fact, even life or death ones. This got me thinking.
Recently I was running an HSE workshop for an organisation - persuading lots of big burly men in PPE to buy into the company's new HSE vision - and I thought to myself, 'What can I do to get the message across that this vision and programme will help you get home safe at night?’ Despite a jam-packed interactive session, the stats were just words. During the break, I had a quick rummage in my handbag and came across Elspeth's Smarties - when everyone came back in the room, I gave everyone a few of the multi-coloured sweets (they thought I was a bit crazy) and then I said, "Those who have a blue one - drop dead".
Statistically of course.
It worked; the message permeated. It meant something to them on a personal level instead of just being an anonymous percentage on a chart.
So here’s my Bold soapbox style statement (other brands are available, no pun intended):
STATISTICS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM, WE ARE.
And here’s my three thoughts on why this is so.
1. We forget the simple rule of 'Shite in, Shite out'
Statistics are not pure. People put the data in and people analyse it when it comes back out.
So data can only ever be as accurate as the information that was originally submitted for analysis. Our perception of statistics has been distorted by a somewhat shameless misuse of data analysis to validate arguments, often for reasons of financial gain - or to create mind-boggling headlines and click-bait to grab people's attention - which, if you take time to unpick them, you'll quickly discover are pure and simple brain-manipulations or complete tosh.
Your data is only as good as the data you put into it. You need to know what you want to measure and what you want to compare. You need to think about what you want to communicate and why without the spin first.
2. We increasingly measure and compare EVERYTHING
Statistics are not always necessary. No really, they're not. Seriously.
Not everything needs backed up by a statistic and not every statistic needs to be compared to another. Did you know for example that the divorce rate in Maine, USA correlates with the per capita consumption of margarine?
Or that you are more likely to be adopted by Angelina Jolie than have a piano drop on your head? Who on earth measured that and most importantly why did they do it?
Now whilst these are somewhat amusing, you can see how scepticism of facts can creep in.
Think about it.
3. We tend to let the statistics do the talking
Statistics are not people. They can’t talk and give context. They are cold.
In HSE circles for example you can’t avoid statistics. Why? Because statistics are crucial in this field. They're used as indicators, auditors and educators. Accurate data responsibly analysed provides a better understanding of a situation and therefore a starting point to improve it. It's a basis for proper and efficient planning, policy-making and a springboard for solutions.
However, on their own HSE statistics are just words. You only have to take a squint at the Health and Safety Executive's own website where you will find a massive A-Z of them – ranging from figures for the incidence of Allergic Alveolitis to some rather grim statistics, detailing the rates of deaths and injuries. But do they have impact? Does reading them make you safer?
Statistics can be a turn-off. They can be difficult to take in and even more difficult to communicate effectively. But without them - we have no source of measurement and learning. That's why we need to take them seriously.
Now watch out for your Smarties in the post…
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