How do we combine stories and statistics?

Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” However, if you tell stories about only individuals, you run the risk of removing the “social” part of a “social problem”—and structural injustices then seem like the fault of the people who face them. Numbers can bridge the gap here, making individual stories into a collective concern—so long as you don’t overuse them, or turn a story into a scorecard.

Tell a story to give meaning to your data.

In the United States, African-American men have a 32 percent chance of spending time behind bars at some point in their lives, as compared with a 6 percent chance for white men. But does this mean that black men are more than five times more criminal than white men, or that there’s a racial bias in our criminal-justice system? Without the context of a story, your audiences might just slide this fact into their preexisting interpretation of the world.

Stories help us filter and judge the data we’re constantly receiving, says Andy Goodman, head of the communications consulting firm the Goodman Center. “A good analogy is a courtroom,” he says. “Research shows that jurors reach decisions by weaving stories, and by what makes sense or doesn’t make sense in the context of that story. Story is what gives data meaning.” The FrameWorks Institute’s 2003 paper “The Storytelling Power of Numbers” recommends that groups “provide the meaning first and then use the numbers to support that meaning.”

Don’t let the issue get beyond your audience’s reach.

If you’re like a lot of nonprofits, you use statistics that show how big a social problem you’re dealing with is. Hundreds of gun deaths every day. Thousands of people dying in natural disasters every year. Millions of acres deforested. Billions of dollars spent on war. These numbers seem perfect for waking people up to your cause. But such data can make your audiences feel that the problem is too big or beyond human control and lead them to disengage or, worse yet, to reject collective solutions to social problems and focus on self-preservation. Action Media says that “David and Goliath” or “Little Engine That Could” stories can use statistics to communicate the possibility of outsized impact.

Use data and stories to demonstrate impact.

Grantmaker Gara LaMarche says, “All the data in the world is useless if those collecting it do not use it to tell a story: How are immigrants enriching the communities they join? What impact has school reform had on the daily lives of students and their parents? What changes are we seeing as a result of a job-training program? Demonstrated impact is not a substitute for storytelling—it is the story.” Infographics and data visualization tools can be useful here; check out the free and paid resources at,, or Piktochart.

Use numbers that people can grasp.

Have you ever heard statistics that you just couldn’t wrap your head around? Let’s take the notion that “10 percent of people suffer from such-and-such a health problem.” “Ten percent” is less grounded than “1 out of 10 people.” The FrameWorks Institute also embraces analogies and “social math” (a concept developed by the Advocacy Institute and the Berkeley Media Studies Group).

In News for a Change, Lawrence Wallack and his co-authors give this example of social math: “Community residents near a gasoline refinery noted that the plant emits 6 tons of pollutants per day—or 25 balloons full of toxic pollution for each school child in the town.” Six tons of pollutants sounds like a lot, but it’s hard to grasp. The balloons and the children, though, are very real. Another example of social math is at the top of this chapter: a print ad with a picture of a young man and a dollar figure on either side of him: “Prison $62,300. School $9,100.” The ad was part of a campaign by Californians for Safety and Justice called #DoTheMath, which also has an illuminating video with other examples of social math.

Further exploration: