Readers can relate better to a personal story than to a statistic. Stories show. Statistics tell. It’s always better to show than to tell when trying to communicate a point. Showing helps readers imagine themselves in the story – especially if the point you’re trying to make is a positive one, like buying your product. So consider using case studies and testimonials instead of statistics.
That’s not to say you should never use statistics. Just use them responsibly. Here are a few guidelines for when you do feel statistics are necessary:
Get your information straight from the original source: A 28 year-old woman reads an article that says, “One in three women will die of heart failure.” Gasp! One in three? That’s huge! She looks to her two sisters and wonders will it be her or one of them. What she doesn’t know is that the writer borrowed the statistic from someone else’s magazine article.
So let’s investigate: According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, “About 5.7 million people (not women) in the United States have heart failure.”1 Not to minimize the seriousness of heart failure, but that statistic would imply there are fewer than 17 million women in the United States. In fact, the U.S. population is 324 million2, so even subtracting out men and children, that statistic is impossible.
Perhaps the magazine article that referred to one in three women was counting only women over 65, or women of a certain national or ethnic background, or women in a particularly limited geographic area, or women with a specific health condition. Without referring to the original source, we’ll never know.
The point is, other publication will have had a different audience and purpose. If you’re going to use a statistic, go instead to the original study. Be sure you fully understand the study’s purpose, scope, test subjects, etc., so you can use any information from it accurately. If it’s not appropriate for your audience, don’t use it. Find another, more appropriate study. Better yet, show your point with a story or testimonial.
Use only credible sources: Anyone can create a blog. That doesn’t make it credible. The information on the website is only as good as the knowledge of the author. Check credentials and get details of any studies they claim to have conducted themselves. If available, choose statistics published by universities or government entities.
Cite up-to-date information: Make sure your source study provides the latest and greatest information. If you’re citing a study more than three years old, it could be outdated. Dated citations can lessen the impact of your statement. If newer information is out there, find it and use it.
There are exceptions, of course. For example, historical statistics won’t change, like television usage in the 1950s or the rise in prevalence of a disease over a certain period. Or, if you’re pulling details from a U.S. census, which is only completed every ten years and may take another 2 or 3 years to analyze and publish, then your 12-year-old citation might actually be the latest information available. Also, if five or more recent, major credible sources say the same thing, you may be able to consider it common knowledge with no citation necessary.
Your citation should allow readers to check the source on their own: A citation has two functions: they give credit to the original author, and they help readers look it up for themselves. Don’t just say, “According to the CDC…” Complete the citation with the name of the author or originating organization, the date published, the title of the publication (web page, journal article, book, etc.) and page number if from a book. If you accessed it online, say so, but include the date you accessed it since websites change, where printed publications do not. Check your favorite style guide for citation structure and apply consistently in all your communications.
1 National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. June 2015. What is Heart Failure? Available at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hf/. Accessed July 15, 2016.
2 United States Census Bureau. U.S. and World Population Clock. Available at www.census.gov/popclock/. Accessed July 15, 2016.
Jeanette Juryea is President of QubComm, your Corporate Communications department in the virtual Qubicle next door. Send an email to Jeanette@qubcomm.com for professional writing, editing and design services from award-winning writers. You can also ask about writer training, brand/style guide development, existing communications analysis and more.