How to play the numbers game

Numbers can play an important part in storytelling, counterintuitive for an area associated with words, we know.

Working with surveys and data to craft hooks for press releases and campaigns is a tried and tested approach. While it’s great to commission new research for a client, it’s not always feasible. Turning to reliable third-party sources, such as the ONS, can be a useful alternative. Either way, numbers are a continuous thread woven through the words.


Feast or famine

Sometimes there is a bounty of data to work with, which seems to endlessly demonstrate a point. Other times it is a barren desert where it seems no-one else on the planet is asking the same questions. In both scenarios, how the data is used is what makes or breaks the story being crafted.

First tip: it is important to remember the role of storytelling in any communication activity – keep asking what that story is whilst you research to avoid getting lost in a sea of numbers.


Navigating through numbers

It can be all too easy to pepper statistics into a release with gleeful abandon where there is lots of supporting data, but this can muddy the water and leave a reader’s head spinning. Likewise, using one number to illustrate a wider point can seem wishy-washy and leave a reader feeling the data has been manipulated to prove a point. So, where is the middle ground?

Truth be told, there is no map to pinpoint the exact location of the middle ground, it depends largely on your topic, audience and platform. Second tip? Our two guiding ‘rules of thumb’:

1. If you have to walk someone through the stats more than once, you probably have too many numbers (or too many sources)

2. If you state your case and your ‘test subject’ isn’t convinced, then you need more support.

This can be a great sounding-out exercise to ensure you don’t lose your story and that the numbers become a well-placed exclamation point to your message. Tip two-an-a-half: if you have an angle and can’t find anything to support it, drop the shoe-horn, look at the data you have and find a new tale to tell.


Painting pictures by numbers

Storytellers are often good at conjuring up a mental picture and using numbers could just give you a little more to work with. Final tip: paint a picture with the data. At its most basic this could be swapping 20% for ‘one in five’…48% for ‘almost half’ – you get the picture.

But you can also get more literal, creating a complementary infographic which literally visualises the data, and perhaps makes use of some of those extra stats you were tempted to pepper into the release earlier.

Turning common stats into a more visual quantity gives data some personality, which in turn helps build the story.

However data is being used it can be an effective and emphatic way to illustrate a point, but the key to playing the numbers game and winning? Illustrate a good story.


Sarah Markulevicius

Account Manager