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Using Data and Analytics Wisely in an Age of Fake News

James Wilson 

May 10, 2019

How many studies or surveys have you seen presented this year, each accompanied by an unambiguous conclusion and an urgent call to action? And how long do you spend in the average month analyzing data yourself, perhaps to prove the worth of your organization’s investment in L&D?

In recent years, the world has found itself in a place where honesty can be seen as a commodity. People struggle to know who to trust, whether in business, politics or our daily lives. It could even be argued that integrity can give a business a competitive edge.

But how can you find trustworthy sources of information to make great decisions for you and your business? And how can you deliver information to your people in a way that prevents misinterpretation?

The tips in this blog might be a simple reminder of best practice, or they might come as more of a surprise to you. In either case, feel free to share them with your colleagues! Encouraging the generation and dissemination of accurate information can increase trust and confidence: two great attributes in a corporate culture.

Check and Cite

We’ve all been there… You’re keen to make a groundbreaking point in a presentation, and you look for supporting quotes from industry or academic articles to give your point substance. Then, you find a publication that agrees with your point of view entirely! So far so good, but there are a couple of things not to forget.

First, check your sources. Are they reputable? What are their motivations or biases? Are they reporting first hand from their own experience or observations? If not, who were their sources?

You might need to spend quite some time researching, but it’ll be worth it, both now and in the future. At the very least, you’ll have protected yourself from potential embarrassment and loss of credibility. At best, you’ll have a new reliable source to refer back to for subsequent information.

Second, cite your sources. This will show your audience that you’ve done your homework and they can rely on what you’re saying. People will also be able to follow up on the background details themselves if they need to.

Identify Misinterpretation and Overinflation

Which of the following statements sounds most impressive?

“Our sales page conversion rate has improved by 50 percent.”

“Our sales page conversion rate has improved by one percentage point.”

Obviously, we’d all like to boast of a 50 percent increase. But both of the above statements could be true at the same time.

For example, if the rate were 2 percent and rose to 3 percent. In that case, the first statement could easily mask the truth that the conversion rate isn’t a very large number at all. Statements such as, “Recruitment costs have plummeted by 50 percent” are similarly open to misinterpretation.

My advice in these situations is to ask for the raw figures in order to see for yourself, in the clearest of terms, what change has occurred.

Challenge Averages

When you read that the “average” participant in a study behaved in a certain way, what does that really mean?

Averages are most meaningful when the data set meets “the empirical rule.” This is where you have a large sample of data that’s spread smoothly across a range of values without any “outliers” (unusual findings).

This subject could easily justify an article of its own, but my quick and easy recommendations are as follows.

First, never be afraid to ask a third party how they calculated their average.

Second, ensure that you collect enough meaningful data yourself.

If you feel that a result is so complex that an average will not properly explain the situation, then consider requesting or creating a visualization of the data. Those outliers (which may have been hidden behind an average) could offer fascinating insights.

Visualize Your Data

Put simply, data visualization is the art of displaying data to reveal its full meaning, in a way that all recipients can grasp at a glance. With the right software, you can make some beautiful, engaging charts that bring your data to life.

Data visualization helps to answer the age-old question of how to explain a detailed piece of analysis to people in your company who may not necessarily be mathematically minded, whether on the shop floor or in the C-suite.

Develop Your People’s Skills

We all handle data in our daily lives, from deciding which car to buy based on performance and emissions, to comparing deals at the grocery store, or politicians’ voting records. Our watches can tell us how well we move or sleep, while social media posts use statistics to shock us 24 hours a day.

You can take your own, and your people’s, abilities in data and analytics to the next level with the Mind Tools resources I’ve listed below. And if you have an analyst in your organization, why not ask him or her to share their expertise in a lunch and learn session?

James’s Recommended Resources

Public Resources

How to Spot Real and Fake News (Article)

Charts and Graphs (Article)

Premium Member Resources

Fred Kiel, Return on Character (Expert Interview Podcast)

Factfulness (Book Insight Podcast)

Good Charts (Book Insight Podcast)

Mind Tools is a U.K.-based company that serves more than 25 million learners from 160 countries offering on-demand management, leadership and career skills training to individuals and organizations. With Mind Tools’ customized corporate learning solutions, your organization will have access to all our premium resources, including expert interview and book insight podcasts, interactive quizzes, and learning streams.

Book a demo with a member of our team to find out more.

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