Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.”

Oh dear. If statistics are anything to go by, it seems that there are a staggering number of destructive, detached and thoughtless citizens out there. Why? Because there are a staggering number of us who are mathematically illiterate. You could call it a social epidemic. I jokingly call myself ‘numerically dyslexic’, but it’s an affliction that many people are ashamed to talk about.

Failing Students Don’t Lie

A recently released two-year British study by the Advisory Committee on Mathematic Education found that a third of all British students on math-related university level undergraduate courses are mathematically illiterate.

But don’t start getting smug. Here’s why. In 2009, roughly 470,000 15-year-olds from 65 countries around the world received standardized testing on numeracy, literacy and science. When the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), released the world education rankings results, neither Canada, the UK, nor the United States were at the top. Ok, Canada faired pretty well, ranking 5th in both math and science. But the United States? A fairly dismal 25th in math, though they did rise to 17th in science.

So, when talking about statistics, what do those numbers tell you? They tell me that there are a whole boatload of people out there who just don’t have the capacity to understand what you’re talking about.

The Curse Of Knowledge

In their best selling book “Made to Stick”, brothers Dan and Chip Heath write about the Curse of Knowledge. The curse of knowledge is basically this: once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. Ergo, you automatically forget what it’s like not to have that knowledge. So, if you’re one blessed with an analytical mind and a natural facility with statistics, probabilities and causalities, you start to wonder why something so incredibly simple (to you, because you have the Curse of Knowledge!), is so hard for Dick or Jane to grasp! Remember, if you were tapping out a tune for Dick and Jane to guess, you would already have the song in your head. Dick and Jane don’t know the song, and are trying to decipher it from knocks on a tabletop.

We know from the above statistics that a percentage of your customers out there are probably not great at math, but if you think that a few numerically phobic people didn’t make it to the C-Suite, or to top-level management roles in your sales and marketing department, think again. Speaking from experience, just as with any other ‘deficiency’, people who are mathematically disinclined have spent decades developing other ways to cope with their disadvantage. We simply have different ways of understanding and conceptualizing data. So, what is the future of analytics when so many people are mathematically deficient? How can you get your information out there, share your unbelievably successful fourth quarter results to the percentage of your workforce or your customer base that just don’t get it? Here’s a hint. We like stories.

Turning Stats Into Stories

If you’re getting ready to present statistics or analysis to a group of your peers or your employees, try these six simple principals, culled from the aforementioned “Make It Stick”, to make your data memorable.

  • Simplicity: Become a master at exclusion. Find the essential core of what you are presenting. Then present that. Make a memorable first statement that is simple yet profound.
  • Unexpectedness: Keep your audience’s attention by violating their expectations. Which would resonate more viscerally for you? Numbers, graphs and charts showing statistically how unhealthy movie popcorn is, or an image of a full day’s fat and sodium intake laid out as hamburgers, steaks and French fries? Thought so.
  • Concreteness: Mission statements and strategies are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Use concrete language and data, examples and images. There’s a reason why urban myths are sticky. They resonate because they are filled with concrete images of razor blades and ice-filled bathtubs.
  • Credibility: When trying to build a case for something, certain people automatically reach for the numerical data to back it up. But what do those numbers really mean? Remember simplicity. During the 1980 presidential debate between Carter and Reagan, instead of spouting off stats about the state of the economy, Reagan asked a simple question: “…ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.” Which brings us to…
  • Emotions: Make people feel something. The popcorn example is a classic. The statement “37 grams of fat” doesn’t elicit emotions. But that fat laden table sure as heck does. Not only did people get what that number really meant. They remembered it.
  • Stories: All of the above principals can be found in any great story. Remember the stunning, game changing 1984 ad by Apple? Of course you do. Because it told a compelling story, start to finish. It was simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and played brilliantly on people’s natural desire to break away from the mundane.

The bottom line is this. Right or wrong, good or bad, statistically speaking there are a huge number of people from all walks of life who can’t, or find it extremely difficult to, synthesize measurement. And that’s ok. We get the concepts behind analytics. We’re fascinated by what you numbers people uncover, we love stumbling across the latest research or newest study, and most of us deeply respect those of you who eat, sleep and breath metrics and results. You can still reach us, and in so doing you might inspire a whole future generation of statisticians and analysts. We just prefer a bedtime story to a pie chart.

What do you think? Is there room in this new world of social media analytics for those of us who don’t come by it naturally? Are you a closeted math phobic? Do you ever experience the Curse of Knowledge? We would love your thoughts on this issue. Please leave your comments below.