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Do stats add up?

When 57% of people I surveyed online told me they were persuaded by statistics over storytelling, I was surprised because it went against everything I knew about our systems of thinking. For example, we use our emotional brain more often than we use our rational brain, especially when being presented with new information because novelty and rationality take up too much energy.

It made me curious. Do people just not know themselves? Is everyone wrong? Did I get a weird sample? Plus, we all know statistics lie. Do people like being lied to?

I initially wanted to understand if statistics had an effect on short-term or long-term behaviour change, but I couldn’t find anything. What I found instead was an explanation of our biases and when statistics work and when they don’t.

Understanding confirmation bias

Many people will look for statistics that suppor their argument and ignore statistics that don’t, i.e confirm their point and dismiss the opposition. Numbers are heavily subject to manipulation, but a lot of the time people still see them as credible when coming from sources they already trust.

Numbers are a language

Statistics can catch attention if they seem extreme, but they add extra layers of effort and interpretation. If you want someone to act on a number alone without interpretation, the chances are they’ll need an existing interest to overcome the work it takes to uncover what you’re trying to say.

It’s essential to know your audience here. Would you display an ad in Picadilly Circus in German with no translation? If you answered no, then make sure you include context clues like “increase in sales”, “a majority of”, and “positive effect on” so your audience isn’t just seeing a number, they’re reading an interpretation or an action.

The two takeaways here are:

  1. Know who your audience is and what language they speak

  2. Then do the hard work and presnt the numbers and context in a way they can understand with little or not effort

Statistics can add credibility

My mom, like a lot of moms, is - obsessed with vitamins.

Some real-life examples are below:

“Mom, I have a headache?”

“Take magnesium honey”

“I’ve been eating a lot lately”

“Oh honey, take magnesium, when I have the magnesium it makes me eat less.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Have you been taking your magnesium?”

I remember one Christmas my family and I sat around a table, we were all laughing and eating until you could roll us around in the snow like a ball. One Christmas she boldly stated that 95% of people who take magnesium live longer.

Everyone laughed, and my uncle asked her for her source. She didn’t have one and we all wrote her off. Today I had a look. It turns out, a 2017 meta-analysis from the National Library of Medicine showed magnesium to positively affect numerous health conditions, including a 59.7% increase in average hair growth.

My mom has been right about magnesium the whole time. Her mistake has been making a general claim with big numbers that sounded too good to be true without a credible source. Had she done her research and focused on key outcomes magnesium improved while citing medical journals, she would have set herself as more of an authority figure. This could have persuaded a few people at the table to actually try magnesium.

Notice again, it’s not the number that is persuasive. The takeaway here is when presenting statistics, the picture the number can paint and the credibility authority/experts can bring can add value to your power of influence.

Using statistics to add certainty

Statistics and numbers in general can encourage certainty In the right context, they provide a snapshot that makes decisions feel less risky or more urgent. For example, 100% money-back guarantees or reviews that show 85% of people like a restaurant or tickets are 95% gone.

Saying that, statistics aren’t the way most companies display these metrics. A guarantee is powerful without the 100% (which can seem gimmicky), reviews are normally displayed by stars, and tickets are normally presented in the context of seats. The takeaway here is that statistics can add certainty, but there’s often a better way to present the information.

Notice again that it’s not the statistics here that hold power, but the emotions they invoke , . statistics with context work because they are easy to interpret. If you read my post last week on persuasion, you’ll notice powers of influence at play here including uncertainty avoidance, authority, social proof and scarcity.


  • Numbers don’t hold the power to persuade, context does

  • If your audience includes ‘numbers people’ make sure you include them

  • Use a credible source

  • If there’s a better way to display your numbers visually or emotionally- do it

Did you learn something this week? Then follow me on Linkedin to be notified next Wednesday at 9:00am when I’ll explore the power of storytelling.


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