The Data Tells The Story…Not!

I was listening to a podcast recently and the guest said, “The data tells the story.” I would contend it’s not the data that tells the story but rather, how the data is presented. Let me share several examples.

Unhealthy Big Macs

In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath shared a story about how unhealthy movie popcorn was back in the 1990s. A medium sized bucket contained 37 grams of saturated fat. While that sounded unhealthy, people basically said, “So what?” Even when informed it was almost twice as much as the USDA recommended daily allowance of 20 grams, people response was still, “So what?”

It wasn’t until “the data” was put into a visual that people sat up and took notice. During a press conference at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it was conveyed, along with a visual, “A medium sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-egg breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” You don’t have to be a doctor or fitness expert to understand how unhealthy that picture is!

Tax Increases

Several years ago, there was debate over a potential increase in the state tax for Illinois residents. It was a whopping 66% increase according to opponents. However, supporters said it was only a 2% increase. And, as strange as it may sound, both sides were right!

At the time, the state tax was 3% and the proposal was to increase it to 5%. So, it was raising the tax two percentage points. But, looking at the change from 3% to 5% represented a 66% increase in what Illinois residents would pay.

It was literally two sides of the same coin…that the state wanted!

Carbon Emissions

I saw a news story last week with the headline U.S. Sets Record in Reducing Carbon Emissions. Given that we stepped away from the Paris Accord it caught my attention. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA):

“The United States saw the largest decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019 on a country basis – a fall of 140 Mt, or 2.9 percent, to 4.8 Gt. U.S. emissions are now down almost 1 Gt from their peak in the year 2000, the largest absolute decline by any country over that period.”

The counterfactual was as follows:

“It’s true that, according to the IEA’s February 2020 report, the U.S. achieved a greater absolute reduction in CO2 emissions than any other country, in 2019. However, claims that the U.S. therefore ‘led the entire world’ or was a ‘global leader’ in CO2 emissions were belied by the fact that other countries (including Germany, Japan, and likely others) achieved a superior rate of reduction in CO2 emissions. Although not a country, the European Union achieved both a larger absolute reduction and a greater rate of reduction in CO2 emissions than the US did.”

This is analogous to the Illinois state tax. It depends on how you view it; in absolute or relative terms. No matter how you view this one, a reduction is a good thing.

National Debt

Is a million dollars a lot of money? I’m guessing all of my readers would say it is. Is a trillion dollars a lot of money? I know everyone would agree that’s a lot of money! Did you know our national debt is over $23 trillion now? Do you realize how big that number actually is? Probably not so let me give you some perspective:

If the U.S. national debt grew no larger starting today, and we could pay it down by one million dollars a day, every single day, any idea how long it would take to pay it off?

Just over 63,000 years. Yes, you read that right, it would take 63,000 years to pay off the national debt if we reduce it by a million dollars a day. We hear about numbers on the news – data – all the time and have no clue as to what those numbers really mean for us.


I could go on and on with examples like these. I hope you see my point – the data doesn’t tell the story. The presentation of the data tells the story. And, how that data is presented always comes with an agenda.

To Do This Week

Start looking critically at what’s being presented and how it’s being presented, especially in the news. Never forget, every news outlet has a bias so carefully consider what’s being presented and ask why it’s being present the way it is.

We’re coming up on a presidential election, a time when all candidates on both sides make big promises. Do a little research, find out what’s being promised and whether or not those promises as truly feasible. I think in most cases you’ll conclude they’re not.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence and persuasion.

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was a top 10 selling Amazon book in several insurance categories and top 50 in sales & selling. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 90,000 people around the world!

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