Making the most of your statistics

Like most politicians, in the current US presidential election campaign Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are twisting the same statistics to meet their very different agendas.

“Over 4 million jobs created in the last two years,” says Obama.

“He has not created jobs,” Romney retorts.

In fact, you could argue that both are true. It depends from what date you start counting from, as this New York Times article explains.

Making an impact

There are lessons here for charity communicators. It’s vital that we use statistics consistently, appropriately and honestly across communications. Otherwise, supporters, donors and commissioners will begin to lose faith in what we do.

Used well, statistics can be shocking or impressive, powerfully conveying the impact that you make. Used poorly, they can detract from the good work that you do and even put it at risk.

Here are some ideas for how to breathe life into your charity’s statistics and make the most of what you’ve got.

1. Ask for help to get the statistics you need

Clients often tell me that they don’t have a statistic because they “…have not got that kind of data”. Talking to the people who do the monitoring and evaluating is imperative. Discuss the kind of things they monitor that would make powerful communications statements. For example, you could find out how much it costs to run a project that supports vulnerable people for a month or year. Or how many people use your services every day.

2. Be creative

To make your audience visualise less interesting statistics, think about what example you can use to bring them to life. You could talk about area in terms of the size of London (1,570 km2), volume relative to how much liquid it takes to fill an Olympic swimming pool (2,500 m3) or population based on how many people the Millennium Stadium holds (74,500).

3. Translate stats so they mean more

“47% of people would like to volunteer more.” “84.5% would quit smoking tomorrow with support.” “10% of young people believe…” These figures are hard for your audience to take in. Think about how you can format them in more digestible and recognisable terms. So the stats mentioned could become: “half of people would like to volunteer more”, “nearly 90% of people would quit smoking…” and “one in 10 young people…” Try to make numbers tangible so they’re more powerful.

So instead of:

Sam got a job after he had been unemployed for one year and three months. He had used our support services for 13 days.

You could have:

After two weeks of using our support services, Sam got a job – he’d been looking for work for 449 days.

4. Create a crib sheet

You could be completely unaware of fantastic statistics that colleagues from the team that sit near you deal with every day. Or you might not know that they use your staple statistic in a different way which changes the tone of what you aim to say. For example, they could use “two out of five people fear homelessness”. But you could work with “nearly two thirds of people do not fear homelessness”.

To avoid this, create a statistics crib sheet for people from across your organisation to use. Suggest that if they want to add figures to the crib sheet they contact you, or a dedicated statistics gatekeeper, first. That way you can make sure everyone is using the same, up-to-date source. If you start using a new statistic, it can be changed across all of your comms. To make sure nothing slips through the net, it’s a good idea to audit your communications at least every 12 months.

5. Be selective

Listing your strongest statistics in succession devalues them and could confuse things. Rather, use one figure to back up your main point.

So instead of:

91% of people said their self-esteem increased after attending one of our day centres. 68% wanted to attend more regularly. Four out of five people had benefited from using our IT services. As a result, 82% of people got a job or returned to education.

You could have:

Our work helps improve people’s self-esteem so that they can fulfil their potential. With support from our day centre staff and services, eight out of 10 people get a job or return to education.

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