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Copy Tip 46: Statistics: Lies or Trust Builders?

Have you ever heard the saying “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”?

It’s actually famous enough to have an entry in Wikipedia.

As it says in that entry, it’s to do with “the persuasive power of numbers”.

And here’s some more.

This is from when I did Economic Statistics at Monash University — a degree that bored me senseless and I departed from early (I’m happy to say I share the “university dropout” title with many famous marketers and entrepreneurs). It wasn’t all a waste of time!

It’s about how stats can also be manipulated to help make your argument more persuasive … highlighting certain aspects of results that might not necessarily reflect the true position … only partially disclosing what’s going on.

Knowing that stuff about stats, I see lots of examples of how stats are used inappropriately!

For example, many graphs don’t start at the “0″ point — and only show a portion of the overall graph — making the result look more dramatic than it really is.

See, look at this graph:

Graph with partial X axis

It looks quite dramatic this way … because the X axis on the left starts at 230, not at zero! Because of this, some results appear 4 times higher on the graph (eg 4th dot across vs 5th dot across is visibly 4 points away on the X axis).

But when you start from the zero point, it’s not so dramatic …

Graph with X axis starting at zero

It’s no longer 4-times the difference at all — to be 4-times different, the 4th dot would stay at the 260 mark, and the 5th dot would have to be WAY DOWN at the 65 mark on the X axis — yet it’s sitting at 230 — only marginally different now.

I see this type of partial-axis graph used EVERY DAY — for example, the Australian Securities Exchange shows a “Market Watch” graph — it only shows the range of movement for that day (here between 3320 and 3360, over a time period from 10am until 4pm), not showing the entire graph. It looks more dramatic this way — that’s not to say it’s untrue of course, but it’s presented in a way that is more dramatic than if they had used the entire graph from the zero point on the left-hand axis.

From this statistical graph, the market might look like it fluctuated a lot during the day (that will all depend on the index on the left) … whereas its overall position only changed a small fraction: finishing up only 18 points for the day to 3345.5 (much less than a 1 per cent change on the total value of the index since the previous trading day).

Here it is:

Market Watch graph example

It’s informative about the day’s activities — but if the entire graph was shown, the small variation since the previous day would be hardly noticeable.

But that’s not really the stats I want to focus on today. You should be aware though that stats can be used in a range of ways, and sometimes more dramatically than they might otherwise appear to be!

It’s a good example though of how stats can be persuasive.

Stats can also be persuasive just because they are statistics!

And that’s especially so if they’re from an official source.

Look at how much news is generated by statistics, and how many activities are affected by stats — where you might live, what your house is worth, what your investments are worth, if you have a job or not … a lot of the answers are based on stats:

That’s just a few examples of the power of statistics!

And in the same way, statistics can be used in copy to highlight and persuade.

For example, if you’re trying to get the message to prospects that the job market is getting harder and your product or service helps people get jobs — you might “scare” people using statistics about unemployment numbers — and the problem you want them to fear and avoid.

Because you’re using government-published statistics, you’re perceived to be backing up your argument with “official data” that seems to agree with your point of view.

So if it’s “official” … it makes your point more persuasive — and in that way more trustworthy and believable.

Statistics can be convincing because they’re from a seemingly reliable source (like a government agency) — so in that way too they’re less “biased” than what you might say, as you can be perceived as a profit-motivated product/service provider.

People are USED to statistics being part of their daily news and daily lives … so they have a convincing role to play in your copy.

Just be aware of course that stats can be used in various ways! That might help make your point more dramatic — but make sure too that your stats are convincing and believable.

So stats … yes, they can create a perception that’s more dramatic than it otherwise could be … but they certainly can be very powerful trust builders, adding to the persuasive nature of your copy.

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