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January 15, 2013

Media Tip: Four Great Ways to Use Statistics

A guest post from Brad Phillips, author of The Media Training Bible.

If you're of a certain age, you probably remember those old television commercials for the Christian Children's Fund. In them, actress Sally Struthers sold viewers on the promise of saving a child for "the price of a cup of coffee."

A quarter-century later, those ads are still memorable. And the way Ms. Struthers used numbers in those commercials is a big reason why. The ads succeeded by reducing numbers down to a manageable price tag for most viewers: "For about 70 cents, you can buy a can of soda....In Ethiopia, for just 70 cents a day, you can feed a child like Jamal nourishing meals."

Imagine if Ms. Struthers had used an annual price tag instead of a daily one by saying, "You can save a child for just $255 a year." Few people would have anted up, and the ads wouldn't be remembered today.

Ms. Struthers knew that most of us can't remember raw numbers or automatically place them into a larger perspective--so you should learn from her example when citing statistics. Instead of using boring, impersonal numbers, provide them with meaningful context that helps elicit a more powerful reaction.

Here are four effective ways to cite statistics:

1. Make numbers personal: Numbers are often best when reduced to a personal level. If you're proposing a new infrastructure project in your city, its $52 million price tag might sound daunting--but you might get more support if you announce that the project would cost each city resident just $43.

2. Don't rely on percentages: Instead of proclaiming that your company's new energy-efficient manufacturing equipment will cut your plant's carbon footprint by 35 percent, be more specific. Will that new efficiency save 20,000 gallons of oil this year, enough to fuel 36 company trucks for an entire year? Say so!

3. Use ratios: An estimated 170,000 people in Washington, DC, are functionally illiterate. But that number doesn't tell you much, especially if you have no sense of the overall population. Instead, one Washington, DC literacy group said this: "One in three adults living in Washington, DC, is functionally illiterate. Next time you're on the Metro, look around you. Odds are that the person to your left or right can't read a newspaper."

4. Provide relative distance: If your car company is introducing an updated model, you'd be proud to announce that the improved version gets four miles more per gallon. But you'd get even more traction if you said, "That's enough to get from Maine to Miami once per year--without spending an extra penny on gas."


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