Writing With Statistics: Mistakes to Watch Out For

Writing With Statistics: Mistakes to Watch Out For

Statistics make your arguments more persuasive, but only if used correctly. Learn more about how to use numbers to give your arguments a firm foundation.

Numbers are power. Adding relevant statistics to your content can strengthen any argument. But if not used carefully, numbers create more problems than they solve.

I wrote a book for content writers called From Reads To Leads. You should check it out to learn what rules you need to follow to write content that converts readers into leads. One of these rules is about using statistics in writing. Go to my home page to get the book or read the first chapter.

Many writers pick up numbers off the street to make their messages more compelling. They aren’t looking to support their arguments or to make their stories more accurate. They aren’t looking for truth. 

Let's look at this example:

If 36 percent of Americans use food delivery services, does this mean that the popularity of these services is growing? To show growth in popularity, we would need to compare the percentage of Americans who used food delivery services in March 2019, for example, with the percentage who used them in March 2021. Growth can only be demonstrated over time. Since there’s nothing to which readers can compare this 36 percent, they might doubt whether the popularity of food delivery services is actually growing.

Let's look at another example:

Any percentage is meaningless to your readers unless you compare it against some base percentage. The stats in the example I've just mentioned look reasonable. The author compares Black Friday sales completed using mobile devices last year with sales completed using mobile devices a few years ago. But let’s think about it for a second. Don’t these statistics raise any questions? Firstly of all, they come from two different sources. They may have been collected using wildly different methodologies and by surveying entirely different demographics. There’s no way for the reader to know whether these percentages can reasonably be compared.

Sometimes a percentage might look high, but without context, it might not be telling the whole story. You need to dig deeper to uncover the truth:

The author did solid research to help her readers arrive at the conclusion that despite a seemingly large number of women-owned businesses, there’s still gender inequality in entrepreneurship.

How to write with statistics

As you use statistics in your writing, here are a few things you need to pay attention to:

1. Numbers can be just as ambiguous as words and need just as much explanation.

For example:

Is 57 percent good or bad? This statement requires an explanation:

Now it’s clear that we’re making progress. 

2. Don’t just throw numbers everywhere you can because it’s considered a good SEO practice. Your statistics need to help you make your point. They can make your arguments believable. 

For example, let’s say our key message is “eating fat keeps you healthy.” One of the arguments we can use to support this message is that polyunsaturated fats can lower cholesterol levels, which, as a result, can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. We can use statistics to make this argument believable:

We didn’t use these stats to demonstrate expertise. We added them to support our key message.

3. When trying to prove your argument with statistics, you need to be sure that what you’re saying is true. I you have doubts, you need to look first at the numbers to help you shape your message and ideas. Don’t do it the other way round. 

If you’ve already shaped your message about something, you’ll be tempted to look for data to prove that you’re right. But the truth is, you might be wrong. You can find seemingly legitimate evidence to support any claim, but your argument won’t be convincing if it’s built on a shaky foundation. 

The next time you find yourself thinking that what you want to say might not be accurate, don’t head to Google to prove you’re right. Instead, look to answer the question with data. Good writing is about telling the truth, not trying to dupe the reader.

4. Numbers without context or specific details are just that—numbers. They don’t help readers arrive at conclusions.

Let's look at this example:


Now let’s see how to author, uses details to communicate the gravity of the situation:

The statement “the cost of college increased by more than 25% in the last 10 years” doesn’t give readers a clear idea of the growing cost of higher education. But comparing what students paid (on average) for a college education in 1978, 2008, and today helps the reader realize that the costs of college are increasing at a breakneck pace and that something has to be done about it.

You need statistics to prove your arguments. And when citing statistics, you must obey the same rules of clarity you obey with words. Learn more about these rules in my book From Reads To Leads.

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