Tuesday, April 12, 2011

54% of statistics are made up

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” This quotation, usually credited to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, came to mind today when I saw a clip of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyle on “The Daily Show.”

Speaking on the Senate Floor during the recent budget debate, Kyle noted that “well over 90 percent” of Planned Parenthood’s activities are abortion-related. The real number, it turns out, is closer to 3 percent. But, as we used to say in the Air Force, “close enough for government work.”

Kyle’s office later said that he hadn’t meant to imply that the 90 percent number he tossed out was a “fact.” It was merely a way to get his point across. Don’t confuse him with facts, I guess, because his mind is made up. Hyperbole is fine with me, as long as we’re in on the joke.

That was certainly true back in the 60s when legendary comedian, broadcaster and adman Stan Freberg posited that nine out of 10 doctors preferred Chun King Chow Mein, before showing us nine smiling Asians and one frowning Caucasian in lab coats. No reasonable person would have expected that Freberg had actually conducted a poll of doctors.

Statistics are powerful tools for writers, of course. Like good cooks, good writers know how to use data to spice up their writing without overdoing it. A few statistics used as proof points validate and support the ideas writers – or their clients – are trying to get across.

Communicators can also use statistics to talk about their work using the first language of their bosses and clients, many of whom live in a world of data. They expect communicators to be able to measure and quantify the results of their efforts, just like any other discipline.

I remember attending a conference about 15 years ago at which a communicator from a peer company presented on his internal communications measurement process, initiated to appease a data-crazy business unit president.

The communicator had done a great job of soliciting feedback from employees through various means and showed a couple of charts comparing his company’s data to “best-in-class” performance. During the Q&A I asked him where the best-in-class numbers came from, expecting him to cite some global survey or other credible benchmark. But, without shame or reservation, he admitted he had made them up.

At least he was honest.

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