3 Ways Stats Can Screw Up Your Story


Laura LiangWhether you’re writing a non-fiction book or crafting a piece for one of the big consumer publications, numbers can help your message hit home. It’s easy to say that Texas loves its high school football, but when you report that Alan High School in the suburbs of Dallas spent $60 million on its new football stadium – well, that’s quite an illustration.

Even though many of us graduated with degrees in English lit or journalism, statistics can play a big role in journalists’ and authors’ careers, at least from time to time. The right numbers can make or break a pitch or the story itself. So it’s important to get those digits right.

Unfortunately, there are times when the numbers conspire against us. Here are three of those situations, and what you can do about them.

The Numbers Are Confusing

So what the heck is standard deviation? Worse, how can you figure out if a study’s results show correlation, but not causation? Do you need to have a math degree to dip your toes into the deep waters of statistical analysis?

Nope. You just need to know when and how to ask for help. Read studies carefully. Don’t rely on the analysis of another news organization or a press release. Call the researcher or buddy up to a stats prof at your local university. You’ll pick up a few things along the way, without signing up for a class at your local community college.

The Numbers Are Really Big or Really Small

Big numbers are hard to digest. Most of us can’t even fathom what it means for the U.S. have a nearly $18 trillion debt. (How many zeros is that, anyway?) So it’s a good idea to break things down for your audience.

For example, if your readers are luxury car fanatics, you can relate the national debt to a parking lot full of $100,000 vehicles. A big parking lot – with 170 million spaces. Suddenly that big number is more tangible.

The Numbers Aren’t There

Sometimes you can search and search for data to back up your point – and never find it. Not all of your great ideas and curiosities have been studied.

Whether you or your editor is dying for a specific statistic, if it doesn’t exist, there’s not much you can do about it. You may need to refine your angle or let your story take you in a slightly different direction. Or in some cases, the story may have to be put on the back burner. What you shouldn’t do is stretch existing numbers or research to make your point. Numbers don’t lie, but they can be used irresponsibly.

Above all, don’t be afraid of the numbers that can really make your story shine. Just be certain that the stats you use elevate your writing and credibility.