Science communication often involves numbers. It comes with the territory. And all these statistics and data can easily become a real barrier to your intended audience understanding or taking notice of what you have to say. Especially when you’re trying to reach non-experts. But data doesn’t have to be dull or complicated – just like anything else, it’s all in the execution.
In day-to-day life, most people don’t deal with big numbers or complicated comparisons. It’s probably also fair to say that, like us, people often switch off if they don’t immediately appreciate the relevance of whatever it is you’re trying to quantify or demonstrate. So, what is the answer?
Well, that all depends on what data or information you’re trying to get across, but the starting point is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. How much of the data do they actually need to know? What are the key figures that you want them to take on board? What’s their likely level of understanding? Are they familiar and already engaged with the topic, or is it completely new to them?
Like any key message, it’s about prioritising and keeping it as clear and simple as possible. For instance, explaining how many people are affected by an issue can be very difficult, particularly if it’s large numbers. But put that number into a perspective that your audience will understand, such as enough people to fill Wembley Stadium, and they might start to visualise or grasp the scale. In fact, comparing figures to everyday things can be used in all sorts of ways and is a great way to help people understand and remember key statistics. Also think about how accurate you need to be. Does your target audience need to know it’s 64% or will ‘around’ or ‘over’ 60% do? As an expert in your field you might feel like you’re sacrificing or over-simplifying important details, but remember that less is usually more.
That said, sometimes lots of numbers can’t be avoided and it’s not that straight forward. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be dry or complicated either. Think carefully and creatively about how you can present your data - is there a way you can make it more visually appealing or easier to digest? There are lots of great examples out there, from ways to present a one-off data set beyond a traditional graph to inspiring infographics that outline several related sets of data or numerical information.
The more relevant, attention-grabbing, understandable and interesting you can make any numbers or data, the more likely people are to engage with them. And, at the end of the day, if your aim is to communicate your area of work or issue, then the number of people who hear about it is the most vital statistic of all.
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