Why is it my wife will always come home with a lottery ticket in a jackpot week? Statistically speaking, she is more likely to die in the car on the way to the shop than she is to win the $30 million draw.
She knows this. I tell her often enough.
Our brain knows the odds are stacked so far against us that it’s barely worth contemplating a lottery ticket as a sound investment. But our heart doesn’t respond to logic. It is entirely subjective. It relies on a different kind of evidence on which to make a decision — experience.
And when we lack the personal experience to make that decision, anecdotes and second-hand experience can help us to imagine it instead.
As David McRaney writes in his essential book You Are Not So Smart…
You don’t think in statistics, you think in examples, in stories. You decide the likelihood of a future event on how easily you can imagine it.
And so adverts depict happy lottery winners on a world cruise, just to help us imagine that statistically unlikely lottery win. Each is a subjective view of one person (or family), because that is how we see the world — not as a statistical whole but as an entirely unstatistical personal experience.
These fictional tales are then given credibility by the extremely common newspaper stories of surprised jackpot winners talking about what they plan to do with the money. And so our imagination begins to outweigh the cold reality of statistics.
Stuff ‘improbable’. Our imagination says it’s possible. Gimme another Maxi-Pick and what was your brother’s birthday again?
But this power of imagination over statistics isn’t always about tricking us to ignore the facts. Most of the time, storytelling helps us to understand otherwise abstract concepts with far greater ease.
The Evolution of Story
Storytelling has been at the centre of how our brains work since the first time someone told a tale around a campfire. Telling tales was a way of transferring personal experience to a wider group. This is how I hunted the mammoth. This is how I escaped the cave bear. This is how your ancestors lived.
Teaching by example. Sharing history. Communicating information in a way others can imagine in their own subjective view of the world.
Telling another member of the tribe how to make a fire still required a beginning, middle and an end. You do this, then that and the result is warmth and light. But if you do that then this, the result is burned hair and lots of pain. Information and experience conveyed as story.
What Do These Facts Mean to Me?
A picture may be worth a thousand words. But an example is worth a thousand stats. [Tweet this]
Consider the recent debate in Australia over the two competing policies for the National Broadband Network (NBN). When the coalition announced their policy, almost all the reporting was confined to stats, numbers and details. All that discussion about upload/download speeds remained very abstract for most average consumers. My mum wouldn’t have a clue how those numbers would affect her. Therefore it’s easy for many people to latch onto the only numbers that make sense to them; one is cheaper than the other (even if it won’t work nearly as well).
So I was extremely happy when James Brotchie — a Queensland university student — launched a website called How Fast is the NBN this week.
The site tells a number of stories. It sets up a common enough scenario, such as uploading wedding photos to Facebook, followed by a clever visual example of what those different upload/download speeds really mean for you, me, your mum and my neighbour.
Stories + examples > stats. Beautiful.
These examples help the reader to visualise how all of those abstract stats and numbers will impact their daily activities.
Yes, the politicians are now arguing over whether the facts are misrepresented. The point I’m making isn’t the numbers, but how James conveyed them in a manner that has made this the most viral piece of NBN-related content in the controversial program’s history. One that people could understand, imagine and share.
So next time you’re releasing that white paper on recent trends and statistical results, consider whether there may be a better way.
Is your headline a statistic or is it a story? Help your valuable information to resonate with more people by using examples.
We may be smart enough to understand your facts and figures. But you need to feed our imaginations as well.