Social math: Yes…data can tell stories too



For a long time, nonprofits and foundations have tried to use data to drive social change–with varying degrees of success. But lately, they’ve caught onto stories as a more influential and memorable communication medium. Many nonprofits are proficient storytellers these days, but few extend that expertise to data-sharing.

In part, stories work because they help people connect new information to what they already know. By relating the unfamiliar to the familiar, we can figure out the relevance and meaning of all the new information that bombards us every day.

The same principle applies to data. We need to create meaning by relating the unfamiliar to the familiar. Piling on raw numbers may prove a point to statisticians, but others need more context to understand the meaning of data.

Social math is a simple way to make data easier to grasp by relating it to things that we already understand. It’s a way of presenting numbers in a real-life, familiar context that helps people see the story behind them. Here are a few examples, some taken from “Making Numbers Count” by Sightline Institute.

  • One less coal plant is like cutting 40% of Washington’s vehicle emissions. That amounts to all the cars and trucks in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane plus the 25 next largest cities in the state, combined.
  • Community residents near a gasoline refinery noted that the plant emits 6 tons of pollutants per day—that’s 25 balloons full of toxic pollution for each school child in town.
  • Most people in Africa support their entire families on the equivalent of what Americans spend on pet food.
  • In 1991, enough alcohol was consumed by college students to fill 3,500 Olympic-size swimming pools, about one on every campus in the United States. The overall amount spent on alcohol per student exceeded the dollars spent on books and was far greater than the combined amount of fellowships and scholarships provided to students.
  • The tobacco industry spends more money promoting smoking in a week than the entire federal government spends on preventing smoking in a year. (Sometimes you can skip the number altogether!)

Finding these kinds of analogies for your statistics takes a little time, but it makes your communications much more effective. Think creatively about how you can capture the scale of things by comparing them to things of a more familiar size. It’s especially effective if those familiar things are chosen to help emphasize your point. In the above example, it’s very effective to tie the amount of pollution directly to the children in a community, a particularly vulnerable population, and to an image of innocence—balloons.

The Internet makes this kind of research much easier. Two interesting sites that just might help are: WolframAlpha for comparisons of units of measure, and the EarthClock and other Poodwaddle clocks for global issues.

Two important points. First, use social math with care. You have to be able to defend the way you’re using any data, so make sure all your numbers and comparisons are accurate. Second, don’t overuse this technique. Less is more. Often, one piece of data conveyed through social math is more memorable and persuasive than six pieces of data.

For those of you interested in learning more about the subtleties of using social math, read Frameworks Institute’s valuable ezine on the topic.

CC photo credit: fragmented



6 Responses to “Social math: Yes…data can tell stories too”

  1. Amy Shropshire Says:

    I think sometimes that we Nonprofit professionals spend so much time writing in definitive statistics for grants and other sources of funding that we forget that sometimes our story’s impact is bigger if we put it in terms that ‘regular’ people understand! Cutting 40% of vehicle emissions is great, right?! Well, how much is 40%…

    And always, like you said, be able to back-up your information. I don’t know how many grant applications I’ve reviewed where they presented us with facts, but I had no clue where they came from. Always cite your information! If its from an internal study, tell us. We really do want to know!

  2. Monday Highlights « Blog Says:

    […] ImpactMax published an article entitled “Social Math: Yes…data can tell stories too.” This article details the use of social math in nonprofit blogging, as social math “is […]

  3. simon - presentations training UK Says:

    Sometimes people forget that data/statistics *IS* a story. An average is a story, a change is a story, a trend is a story….


  4. E-Learning » Blog Archive » Another Take on Quantitative Storytelling Says:

    […] numbers still have a place, and they can even be woven into stories. An entry on Impactmax titled “Social math: Yes…data can tell stories too” talks about “social math” as “a way of presenting numbers in a real-life, […]

  5. Changing Minds: Social math, stories and framing | Change Conversations Says:

    […] that helps people see the story behind them. In an excellent post on social math on her blog, ImpactMax, Gayle Thorsen offered a number of examples, some taken from Making Numbers Count by Sightline […]

  6. The Power of the Explanatory Comparison | datatherapy Says:

    […] the idea is to offer the audience a relevant context for the information (read some more on ImpactMax or […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: