Blog 11th Mar 2019

Last week, I attended Stempra’s flagship training event in London. It was a one-day event and mainly for junior press officers trying to understand and improve how they communicate about STEM subjects. It’s clearly a jungle of data and hype they are having to work through, and I was pleased to be invited to contribute some of my experience to help them navigate that sometimes-trying journey.

Be a responsible communicator and don’t dismiss the ‘why’ – these were my parting thoughts from the event, and here’s why.

We heard from the BBC’s Head of Statistics, Robert Cuffe, with his tips on “how to talk about numbers”. It was a popular discussion because most people report data and the tech industry is suffering from too much hype through misrepresenting data and unmet promises.

Here are my key takeaways from the session for anyone learning how to communicate statistics:

    1. Ask a friendly statistician for confirmation on how to talk about the numbers
    2. Statistical significance is the “price of entry”. Don’t entertain the thought of using anything non-significant and be wary of words like trending, potential, or possible
    3. Once you pass the first test, understand the story based on the size of the effect:

a. Relative numbers are ok;

b. Absolute numbers are better. They provide context and meaning that may not be apparent with a relative headline, for example.

The discussion of relative vs absolute numbers is one we’ve also had at Speechmatics. Either way, there’s a responsibility for communications professionals to be technically accurate, whilst still being understood. We shouldn’t assume that the audience will understand the numbers, read the full paper or even ask questions; it is our responsibility as communications professionals to ask how the data was measured or what else may have caused the results. Even with some gaps, there may still be a story worth telling but it’s important to be clear on causal limitations.

From the questions following the talk, it was evident that there is some pressure to present numbers positively when they aren’t always convinced. I wondered if organisations were simply disregarding the consequences of misleading communications, or whether people don’t feel confident enough to push back, either because they don’t have the experience or because the environment isn’t right to do so. In both cases, it’s a shame.

The event then split into two parallel sessions. I was part of the panel session ‘Bringing Engineering and Technology Stories to Life’. I was joined by 3 others, from a variety of backgrounds, to discuss our experience and to share some insight followed by a Q&A session.

I spoke about the importance of understanding your audience, and as communications professionals, it’s our responsibility to ask the annoying and ongoing ‘why’ questions to ensure messages are informative, relevant, and engaging. It seemed like people weren’t really sure how to go about this. My immediate thoughts are that we should be setting up our communications people to continually ask these ‘why’ questions as they’re the ones standing between your company and getting your product or technology out there and used in the real world. How they present you will leave an impression so we should be providing them with the context they need to demonstrate value, and we shouldn’t be dismissing their ‘whys’. After all, if they’re struggling to understand the benefit or value, how is the wider audience going to get it?

It was an enjoyable day and a real privilege to be part of the panel sharing my experience and insight from a tech perspective and discussing the importance of knowing and understanding your audience. A special thank you to Stempra for organising the event and inviting me to talk.

Kathryn Lye, Speechmatics