Framing essentials: how numbers can add up to a compelling story

Numbers, data, statistics, figures as communicators and campaigners, we love them and need them. They give us vital evidence about the scale of the issues we talk about. But while numbers can be powerful, we often expect them to do too much.

Numbers or statistics can’t tell a story by themselves. They can’t change hearts and minds. They can’t inspire action or change.

But if we make numbers part of a wellframed story that includes context, explains what they mean and gives people a reason to care, it all adds up to a winning formula.

Here are three ways we can multiply the impact of numbers and ensure our stats don’t fall flat, get misinterpreted or even backfire on us.

  1. Show what the numbers mean
    • If you remember one rule for using numbers, make it this: no naked numbers. Why? Because if you give people numbers without context, they make sense of them through their own beliefs, values and the stories they already know. The conclusions they come away with could be completely different from the story you want to tell.
    • Use numbers in context to support your story not as a story on their own. Use a shared value to show why your issue matters, a tested metaphor to help people understand how it works, and explain the causes step by step.
    • If you’re using graphs, charts or maps, use the title to tell the story of what’s shown in them, not simply to state what the image is. This helps people to quickly understand and interpret the data.
  2. Make your numbers relatable
    • Another effect of naked numbers is that people find it difficult to imagine or visualise the scale or size. ‘Social maths’ can help with this it’s the idea of comparing 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 than the populations of London and Paris put together’.
    • Use your imagination and think of something your audience would relate to.
  3. Talk about solutions as well as problems
    • Another problem with big numbers is that they can create a sense of overwhelming crisis the problem feels too big to solve, making people feel fatalistic and switch off. Including specific solutions to the problem shows that change is possible: we can do something about it.
    • Make sure the solution matches the scale of the problem you’re describing.