Presenting Statistics: Don't Forget the Easy Part

Sep 16, 2011

This morning’s “Daily ‘Dog,” a website devoted to information and discussions about the public relations profession, introduced a “Best Practices Guide for Use of Statistics in Public Relations,” prepared jointly by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the American Statistical Association (ASA). This short document is excellent guidance not just for PR professionals, but for anyone presenting survey results and other statistical information.

To this informative guide, I would add a few thoughts that it didn’t directly address, tied to simply presenting statistical information clearly, concisely, and in a way that the audience understands. In several places, the guide lumps together “describing” and “understanding” statistical information. These are two ideas that must be separated.

Think about it. . . how many brilliant people do you know who have a hard time articulating an idea or their expertise? And how many truly eloquent people simply aren’t credible, because they clearly don’t have a good grasp of the subjects about which they speak? For quantation, just as it is for other communication skills like writing and speaking, understanding and presenting are two completely different challenges.

Here’s a simple example: Suppose 3 of 14 survey respondents answered “yes” to a question. Is the percentage of “yes” answers 21%, or is it 21.4285714%? Both may be mathematically correct, but the extra digits in the longer number make the important digits (i.e., the “21”) harder for the reader to find and remember while adding little information, so presenting them is actually destructive to audience understanding. Even if we ignore the mathematical reasons behind how you should present a number, using too many digits is like expressing yourself with too many words, or using words with too many syllables, for no good reason.

Every presenter of numbers faces dozens of choices just like the one I describe above, much like the choices a writer or a speaker faces. It is both wise and useful to think of presenting numbers as having rules, just as speaking and writing have their grammar and so many other sets of rules essential for effective communication.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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