I was listening to a Radio 4 programme yesterday (Friday 17 May) that I haven’t heard before, it was all about questioning the many statistics that fill our lives. Among the issues raised were statistics about crime, survey results about knowledge levels among children and economic figures. The conclusion was that you can really make statistics say whatever you want to just by how you cut the data or do the analysis. So it really is true to say there are lies, damn lies and statistics.
So, how do I keep that in mind but still reconcile it with my love for infographics as a method of communicating information?
Infographics work for me because they use facts but they do it in a lively and entertaining way rather than by using the traditional charts found in most businesses. Many people find statistics a really dull thing and we need to provide ways to make the numbers easier to understand. But these are not statistics for me, they are killer facts and stories. While some can deal with percentage points and Gantt charts most people will respond more positively to stories.
Storytelling is something that we learn as a child and stays with us for the rest of our lives. Whether that is talking to friends down the pub, sharing the latest updates with family members or posting what you are doing on Facebook – these are all forms of storytelling. They are interesting because people can relate to them, they are about feelings and responses and outcomes. For me, that is when infographics work when they take a lot of killer facts and turn them into an understandable story or narrative.
I know that statistics do play a part in modern life but they have been abused for so long by people trying to support a particular perspective that 85 per cent of people don’t trust statistics. That is also a problem. Statistics can be made up on the spot just as I did, but if spoken convincingly the figures will be believed. Back to that Radio 4 programme, all the people who had been using the statistics that were brought into question had done it convincingly. Statistics are a part of daily life but perhaps we have to find ways to make them less about the numbers and more about the stories.
It is the last day of March and I am trying to quantify what I have achieved during the first quarter of 2013. I have to say it is quite a scary thing to do as you realise that although you may have done a lot there is also a lot that has not been done. Those things that you had hoped to do but keep putting off until tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.
Measuring things can be really valuable as it helps to tell you where you are and how that compares to previous days, weeks, months or years. And at work it is essential to know whether things are going in the right direction, whether you are providing a quality service, and whether you are providing value for money.
However, I was reminded when taking part in the latest #swchat on Google+ (check it out here http://www.stopthinksocial.com/live-show-swchat/) that we have to be careful that the focus remains on what the data is telling us and not on measuring things. The discussion was around change management and the governance of change. Not my favourite subject but I know that on every journey there has to be milestones that we can measure progress against. That doesn’t mean that we may change or deviate on the road we have taken, and we should if feedback requires it.
For many working in the public sector measuring things has become a way of life. I can understand why, it has been due to the need to demonstrate what is being achieved for the public money that is being spent. But in recent years we have lost sight of the reason why things are measured and have become sidetracked into the task of measuring. In doing that we risk losing what should always be in mind, and that is the people and the service they receive often in traumatic or challenging circumstances.
So what can we do to redress the balance and continue to measure but make sure that we don’t just become collectors of statistics?
It is as important to have the stories about your business that can illustrate what customers feel or think about your service or product. As always it cannot just be about quantity it has to be about quality and how we understand what people are finding when they use the business. These stories can be difficult to uncover when we don’t have money to spend on market research and questionnaires. But then do we need to? There are ways of using what is around us on a daily basis and listening to people’s feedback a little harder. This isn’t just using social media but the day-to-day response from interactions between staff and customers.
The new financial year looms tomorrow and with it there will be more statistics and data. All of which is fine provided we balance it with the stories that will help our organisations to move forward on the journey.