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All hail the statistics of the year

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The Royal Statistical Society is a splendid, august body. Founded early in Queen Victoria’s reign, the original stated aim of the Society was set out by its founding fathers – “statists” as they called themselves; as members still call themselves today – as “procuring, arranging and publishing facts to illustrate the condition and prospects of society”. A very noble, data-driven aim.

In our topsy-turvey era when the Trumps and Goves of this world maintain that facts are irrelevant to public dialogue and policy – “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts”, as Gove so famously told Sky News during the EU Referendum campaign – we’ve never needed the legion of statists more.

You know, the domain of words has had it its own way for too long. Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries anoint and venerate their words of the year, and in the recent past they’ve started to get greedy. After Trump’s election in November 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared that “post truth” was its word of the year. Just under a year later, Collins’ lexicographers selected “fake news” as 2017’s word of the year. Unless my maths has gone very far awry – and I was “badly taught” at secondary school – that’s WORDS of the year, not word. The rather puny excuse I’ve heard bandied about in defence of this avarice is the advent of the hashtag, and the words are really #posttruth and #fakenews. Bah humbug, piffle, and balderdash!

In this traditional season of Star Wars and the quest to bring balance to the force, step forward the Last Jedi in the form of the Royal Statistical Society with its inaugural statistics of the year (see their own report here, and mediated through the clever hands of the Financial Times’ head of statistics over there). Now I worked in PR for a quarter of a century. I can spot a PR story when I see one, and “statistics of the year” most definitely belongs in this category.

But what’s compelling about the numbers that the RSS has chosen – 69, 0.1, and 7.7bn, since you ask – is that they are brilliant examples of data-driven storytelling using well-chosen, killer statistics. Or – as those who know me know I call it – narrative by numbers. We’ll come back to that shortly.

69 is the average number of US citizens killed by lawnmower accidents each year. This contrasts with the number killed by immigrant Islamic terrorists, which this year numbered two. The power of the RSS’  choice of 69 is the context it brings to @POTUS45’s frenzied determination to bring in his travel ban on citizens from half a dozen proscribed Islamic countries.

0.1 represents the percentage of UK land that is densely built up, defined as “continuous urban fabric”, where 80% or more of land is covered by man-made surfaces. That’s the hardcore of town and city centres. An additional 5.4% of the UK is in the suburbs. Again, this provides context to the shrill cries of Brexiteers and those who believe the country is swamped, flooded, or otherwise inundated by a tide of immigrants. 0.1%, 5.4%. Overcrowded? Doesn’t seem like it when the real context is presented.

No so densely overcrowded after all

Maybe not so densely overcrowded after all

What’s so clever about the Society’s narrative by numbers, is that it provides proper context. With an intriguing, killer statistic, it’s not expository; it doesn’t beat you over the head with a sea of numbers, but it piques the reader’s interest and has you begging for more. More numbers, and more of the story. You positively yearn to hear the backstory in this “show not tell” approach.

Nor do they show their workings out (though they – and those they’re praising – have done all their working out and are ready and prepared to share it when you ask, interest duly piqued). The statistics of the year use relevant data. They detect signal from noise, creating clarity, and cleverly fuse the rational and the emotional. Above all, they talk human.

And here comes the shameless plug. In April next year – April 13, what would have been my statist father’s 110th birthday – Routledge are publishing my new book Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data. My father was a classicist – a storyteller – by initial academic training; I followed those footsteps. And later he was the founding director of the Institute of Economics and Statistics at Oxford in the late 1940s.

I, too, am a Johnny-Come-Lately to data-driven storytelling – though nowhere near as lofty as him – starting with a Masters and then a Doctorate in Experimental Psychology in the early Noughties. And now this book.

And my statistic of the year? 77. The age my mother would have turned today, had she not been untimely ripped from among us this June.

Happy Christmas!

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.