Framing essentials: how numbers can add up to a compelling story
Numbers, data, statistics, figures–ascommunicators and campaigners, welove themand need them.Theygive us vital evidence about thescale of the issues we talk about.But while numberscan be powerful,we oftenexpect them to do too much.
Numbersor statisticscan’ttell a story bythemselves.Theycan’tchange hearts and minds.Theycan’t inspireaction orchange.
But if we make numbers part of a well–framed storythat includes context, explains whatthey meanand gives people a reason to care, it all adds up to awinning formula.
Here arethreewayswe canmultiply the impact of numbers and ensure our stats don’t fall flat,get misinterpretedor even backfire on us.
Show what the numbers mean
If you remember onerule for usingnumbers, make it this:no naked numbers.Why? Becauseif you give people numberswithout context, theymake sense of them throughtheir own beliefs,valuesand the stories they alreadyknow. The conclusions they come awaywith could be completelydifferent from the story you want to tell.
Use numbersin contextto supportyour story–not as a story on their own. Use ashared valueto show why your issue matters, a tested metaphorto help people understand how itworks,andexplainthe causes step by step.
If you’re using graphs, charts or maps, use the title to tell the storyof what’s shown in them, not simply to state what the image is.This helps people to quickly understand and interpret the data.
Make your numbers relatable
Another effect of naked numbersis that people find it difficult to imagine or visualise the scaleor size.‘Social maths’can help with this – it’s the idea ofcomparing a number with something that’s familiar to people.
It could be something like‘the size of ten football pitches’, ‘three times bigger than England’or ‘more people thanthe populationsof London and Paris put together’.
Use your imagination and think of something your audience would relate to.
Talk about solutions as well as problems
Another problem with big numbers is that they cancreate a sense of overwhelmingcrisis–the problem feels too big to solve,making people feelfatalisticand switch off.Including specific solutions to the problem showsthat change is possible: we can do something about it.
Make sure the solution matches the scale of the problemyou’re describing.