Dire shortage in data storytelling skills trumps Sunak’s appeal to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”

Since assuming the top job in British politics, Rishi Sunak has been remarkably quiet. In contrast to the out-of-control rambunctiousness of Johnson and the utter chaos of the seven-week trainwreck that was Liz Truss’ premiership, Sunak has been almost Trappist in his silence. His people have been keen for him to be seen to be Getting On With The Job in a serious and considered way.

That all changed last week, though. Tory high command became aware that Labour’s Keir Starmer planned a big policy announcement for Thursday. So, Central Office determined to get in there first and staged a hastily-arranged press conference the day before to steal Starmer’s thunder. With the Tories trailing Labour by more than 20 points since last September – the latest Politico poll of polls shows a sustained 22% gulf – Team Sunak were keen to regain the initiative and reassure the country that he’s very much in control.

From silence to Action Man

On one level, Central Office’s timing was a masterstroke. Wednesday’s airwaves and Thursday’s front pages were full of Sunak’s five-point plan. That said, very few political commentators welcomed it warmly. Indeed, the usually hyper-loyal Daily Telegraph criticised the form, the content, and particularly the delivery style of the fledgling PM, suggesting Sunak’s speech may well have been created by OpenAI’s new chatbot, Chat GPT, that’s currently causing Google sleepless nights. The paper reported: “Rishi Sunak’s chatbot-style speech was like painting by numbers, but with words”.

With Sunak winning Thursday morning headlines but few of them positive, Starmer appeared confident at his own launch. His language was an improbable blend of Tony Blair’s positivity (he said “new” more than two dozen times), blended with Dominic Cummings’ rhetoric of Brexit (the centrepiece of Starmer’s new new Labour government would be a “take back control” bill).

Labour seemed certain to secure saturation media coverage on Thursday and into Friday, and the early signs were that the outputs would be more positive than Sunak’s. That was until the latest leaks and revelations from Harold Wales’ new ghost-written timebomb, Spare, which dominated national and global media coverage through Thursday, into Friday, and beyond, relegating Starmer’s announcements to well inside the papers. Sunak may not have got much positive coverage on Thursday, but reflections on his first speech of 2023 will be wrapping more fish and chips than Starmer’s in the days and weeks to come.

Pledge allegiance to the pledges

Sunak’s five pledges included a commitment to halve inflation by the end of the year. Since the independent Office of Budget Responsibility – the body that Truss and her paramour-chancellor Kamikwazi Kwarteng ignored at their peril – believes inflation will more than halve of its own accord by the end of the year (current estimate: from 10.9% to 3.75%), it wasn’t altogether clear that Sunak could claim credit here.

In a move that might help citizens establish the truth, one of Sunak’s most eye-catching commitments was to ensure that all children study mathematics until they turn 18. Sunak said:

“One of the biggest challenges in mindset we need in education today is to reimagine our approach to numeracy … Right now, just half of all 16 to 19-year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, letting our children out into that world without those skills, is letting our children down. So, we need to go further. I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system.”

Pause just a brief moment and try not to gag on the line “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. Then move on.

His view is that, if only we were all more numerate – like his former colleagues at Goldman Sachs, no doubt[1] – we’d be much better able as a society to deal with counting the pennies and riding out the cost-of-living crisis. It’s as if he believes that the crisis has been caused by the nation’s collective inability to do double-entry book-keeping rather than – say – Truss and Kwarteng blowing up the economy, a decade of austerity, and policies designed to make the rich richer. If your jaw’s not on the floor and you sense – say – some double standards, a quick detour to Clár Ní Chonghaile’s article in The New European will put you straight – see “Rishi Sunak’s maths drive does not add up”.

National innumeracy

It’s true that Britain is not a numerate nation. According to the excellent charity, National Numeracy, more than half the adults in the U.K. workforce have poor numeracy skills, while more than three-quarters would fail to pass GCSE maths. But forcing all children to study maths until the age of majority is not the way to close the numeracy-literacy gap. (And by the way, Rishi. We don’t need to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. It the words of National Numeracy, we need to “improve numbers’ skills”, “tackle numbers anxiety”, and not speak like management consultants).

With plentiful justification, a solid dose of humour, and not a little vitriol, the actor Simon Pegg poked a finger in the eye of more maths and championed arts subjects instead. In his entertaining, NSFW rant at Sunak’s plans, Pegg asked: “What about the arts, humanities, fostering this country’s amazing reputation for creativity and self-expression?” He concluded that “Rishi Sunak wants a … drone army of data-entering robots”.

Sunak’s justification for more maths was: “in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before”. As a data storyteller, I agree with the diagnosis and the rationale, but I very definitely disagree with the medicine (mandatory maths til 18). Great data storytelling isn’t about sciences (and maths) against the arts. It’s about bringing these hitherto irreconciled and irreconcilable skillsets together.

The future belongs to effective data storytellers
The two skills everyone needs in the modern knowledge economy are the ability to look at and make sense of the data that surrounds us – as individuals, as teams, as entire organisations – AND the ability to use that understanding to persuade others to take action. We need to combine numbers and narrative, stories and statistics, steering a (yet again perhaps Blairite) third way between Sunak and Pegg. In today’s workplace, the ability to get ahead is defined by the ability to crack the core equation: Analytics + Storytelling = Influence.

Being a great data storyteller isn’t about more and more maths or bard-like narrative skills. It’s about humanity, empathy, and the ability to understand the likely data tolerance of those we seek to influence (likely to be much lower than you think, even in a highly-numerate audience). I’ve built a business and a career out of showing both more analytical and more creative individuals how – by stealing a few of the clothes of their polar opposites – they can tame the sometimes fire-and-ice worlds of narrative and numbers and reach a productive accommodation between the two. These are the guiding principles underpinning the data storytelling training I’ve been developing in recent months, soon to see the light of day as an online course called Using Data Smarter in the coming weeks. There’s a short, 15-minute video that lots of people have found to be a helpful introduction to the topic over there.

A new hope?

For more than a decade now, politics has been mired in an adversarial maelstrom, fueled by a social media comedy of errors. To navigate out of this dead-end, politicians should take inspiration from the growing army of data storytellers who see things from both points of view and pour oil on troubled waters. It’s got to be worth a try.


[1] It has been noted that Sunak’s stint with at Goldman Sachs is mysteriously missing from his LinkedIn profile