How Should You Present Statistics So People "Get" Them?

In business, few things carry more weight than a well-researched statistic. And few things are just as easily misunderstood.

Why are stats so perplexing? Put simply, our brains are not wired to readily understand abstract percentages and large numbers. They are much better at comprehending smaller groupings and relationships. To get a fact across, it pays to recast it in terms of groupings and relationships rather than in terms of percentages or large numbers.

You have probably already experienced this strategy in practice. For example, have you ever seen a commercial that says something like “4 out of 5 dentists recommend product X?” It would be equally correct to say “80% of dentists recommend product X.” But advertisers know it is easier to understand the ratio “4 out of 5” than it is to get a feel for “80%.”

Consider these examples:

Pair #1:

  • Bill Gates has a net worth of $79.2 billion dollars.
  • Bill Gates makes over $3,765 every minute since Microsoft was created.

Pair #2:

  • The Macbook Air is approximately 0.71 inches thick.
  • The Macbook Air fits into a manilla envelope.

(Both pairs are based on the examples here.)

In both pairs of sentences, the first statistic is just as technically correct as the second...but the second sentence makes the relationship much more understandable. To most people, 79.2 billion is just another large number. Casting it in terms of the sheer amount of money Gates makes every minute puts that number in perspective. Likewise, 0.71 inches does seem like a small measurement...but we can better understand exactly how thin an Airbook is knowing that it can fit into a manilla envelope -- something most of us have first-hand experience using.

Presenting Statistics in Training Materials

When statistics are presented in ways that are hard to understand -- or are devoid of context -- problems arise. At best, the statistic is easily forgotten. At worst, the statistic is misunderstood, miscommunicated, and misused.

Training materials are a common place where statistics are used, and receiving misinformation here can have many downstream consequences. So it pays to take some time now to ensure that stats are presented the right way in training materials. You can do this by:

  1. Highlighting ratios instead of percentages. As with the dentist example above, turn a percentage (80%) into a ratio (4 out of 5).
  2. Using analogies for large or abstract numbers. Recast large numbers in a scale your audience will grasp and appreciate.
  3. Keeping things tangible and concrete. When thinking about an analogy, stick to things people touch, use, or experience every day. They might not understand an arbitrary measurement, but people have a good feel for the length of their commute, the size of an envelope, the number of stairs in their building, and so on.
  4. Incorporate visuals. Relationships are sometimes easier to see than describe. So use visuals when you can, even if the visual merely reinforces an analogy.

And as an added bonus...what works for training materials works for other kinds of presentations, too. So if you are looking, say, to get management buy-in for a new program, presenting relevant stats in this kind of easy-to-digest format will go a long way in making your case.

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