A few days ago I found a very valuable, yet free resource for improving the way we report statistics.
Making Data Meaningful is a series of short, sweet and free ebooks created by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe as a practical tool to improve the way charts, tables and statistical data are presented to the general public.
Don’t be deterred by the official designed-by-committee air that a UN publication may have, this are books inspired by the latest trends on mass communications and data visualization. In it you will find several references to some of my favorite books: Few’s “Show Me The Numbers” and Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”.
I particularly like Part 1, “A guide to writing stories about numbers“, because in a very concise manner, it proposes a way of changing your approach to presenting statistics. Starting from the language. Look at this wonderful summary:
- Language that people understand;
- Short sentences, short paragraphs;
- One main idea per paragraph;
- Subheadings to guide the reader’s eye;
- Simple language: “Get,” not “acquire.” “About,” not “approximately.” “Same,” not “identical”;
- Bulleted lists for easy scanning;
- A good editor. Go beyond Spell-Check; ask a colleague to read your article;
- Active voice. “We found that…” Not: “It was found that….”;
- Numbers in a consistent fashion: For example, choose 20 or twenty, and stick with your choice;
- Rounded numbers (both long decimals and big numbers);
- Embedded quotes (these are sentences that generally explain “how” or “why”,
- and which journalists like to use verbatim in their news stories in quotes);
- URLs, or electronic links, to provide your reader with a full report containing further information.
- “Elevator statistics”: This went up, this went down, this went up;
- argon and technical terms;
- All capital letters and all italics: Mixed upper and lower case is easier to read;
- “Table reading”, that is, describing every cell of a complex table in your text.
And then, they present several ways on how you could improve your writing skills:
From January to August, the total square metres of utility floor space building starts rose by 20.5% from the January to August period last year.
In the first eight months of 2004, the amount of utility floor space started was about 20% higher than in the same period of 2003.
Also, another wonderful summary about creating better charts:
- Achieve clarity in your graphics by:
- Using solids rather than patterns for line styles and fills;
- Avoiding data point markers on line graphs;
- Using data values on a graph only if they don’t interfere with the reader’s ability to see the big picture;
- Starting the Y axis scale at zero;
- Using only one unit of measurement per graphic;
- Using two-dimensional designs for two-dimensional data;
- Making all text on the graph easy to understand;
- Not using abbreviations;
- Avoiding acronyms;
- Writing labels from left to right;
- Using proper grammar;
- Avoiding legends except on maps.
Few people stop to think about how others will interpret or read their findings. Others are delusional enough that they deliberately stay away from this “journalistic style” and think that numbers speak for themselves. That’s rarely the case.
Even if you have a chart that tries to explain the numbers, you still have to put up some work to make those statistics interesting enough so that they stand out and you don’t bore or confuse your audience. You have to tell a compelling story, you have to incite curiosity, questioning and further exploration. Even if you’re doing a private report, you have to be a journalist and a storyteller.
So if you want a quick crash course on the subject, go on the UNECE website, download Making Data Meaningful and give it a read.