In a few weeks time we will be enjoying a relaxing week sea-side in North Carolina. Well it was going to be relaxing, until we heard about the recent shark attacks. Now there is some stress. Okay for some in the family a lot of stress. The possibility of ‘Jaws’ slashing the party is a frightening thought.
But stop, what is the likelihood that any of us will be attacked by a shark? In 2013, the Florida Museum of Natural History reported that there was a one in 2 million chance of dying from drowning while only a one in 254 million chance of dying from a shark bite. I guess that stat makes me feel some better. Although it kind of feels like the message is ‘Don’t worry about sharks, you are more likely to drown.” That doesn’t lessen my fear it just shifts it.
The issue about shark attacks is used by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick to talk about credibility. Messages that are considered more authoritative stick better with the audience. Statistics is one of the ways we can create credibility.
Use Statistics to Illustrate a Key Relationship
The Heath brothers make the point that statistics on their own are rarely meaningful. Their value is found in portraying relationships. That is what people are going to remember long after they have forgotten the actual numbers.
What does this mean? Let’s return to the shark issue. The Florida Museum of Natural History also reports that it is 300 times more likely that a person will be killed by a deer (via an auto collision) than it is that they will be killed by a shark attack. This statistic is more effective than the comparison to drowning for two reasons.
First, it taps into our pre-existing knowledge. The thought of deer doesn’t elicit fear, certainly not like drowning does. Second, the association that ‘Bambi’ is three hundred times more likely to kill you than a shark is surprising. Because of that you will retain the relationship regarding the risks posed by deers vs. sharks even if you forget the actual statistic.
Use Statistics that relate to our human experience
Statistics are more effective when we translate them into a context and scale that is appreciated by our audience. Statistics presented in this way empowers the audience to use their intuition in evaluating the credibility of the numbers and the message they are supporting.
What I said above regarding deer would have little impact if we had no concept or understanding of that animal. But because we do, then the statistic adds to the credibility that we don’t need to freak out about the risk of shark attacks.
The scale of the numbers we use is also important. Using very large or very small numbers may be accurate enough but not very meaningful to our audience. Translating the number into a scale that connects with human understanding is better. So to report the risk of shark attack as one in 254 million uses a number too large for us to easily grasp. Better to report the risk using numbers that we can relate to, like three hundred.
It’s your turn
How do you use stats to add credibility to your message?