Using statistics in white papers is a proven tactic for sharing information. Many of the people who write white papers for their organizations like statistics and use them freely. After all, in an era full of hype and half-truths, numbers are definitive and absolute, without any wiggle room. Sixteen of something is sixteen. $8,322,386.34 is a specific amount of revenue. A thickness of 0.0421 inches leaves zero room for error. That’s why white paper writers are comfortable packing those documents full of statistics.

Statistics in white papers create confusion

However, there’s a danger with dependence on statistics in white papers. Many of the people you’re trying to reach through your white paper may not really understand what your numbers mean and why. You’ve no doubt heard of the concept of literacy. There’s a corresponding concept related to the ability to comprehend numbers that’s called numeracy. A surprising number of Americans are extremely weak at it — more than people in many other countries.

That’s not one writer’s opinion. The International Assessment of Adult Competencies uses five levels to measure numeracy among residents of 33 countries. In their most recent study, only 9 percent of American adults fell into the highest level of numeracy, with 28 percent scoring in the very bottom category. Put simply, better than one in four Americans can’t make sense out of numbers. It isn’t just they see math as hard; to them, it’s just as incomprehensible as nuclear physics.

Statistics in white papers can reduce clarity

The practical meaning of the study is if you’re using statistics and other numerical representations in your white papers, you’re probably losing a large chunk of your audience. Your carefully crafted tables and graphs might as well be doodles to many people. What you see as straightforward appears to be garbled.

It’s not just a problem among the bottom 28 percent. People who rank on the next level of the numeracy scale also struggle to understand. Fewer than one in ten people share your enthusiasm for and comfort with numerical information. And those who don’t understand may come away from your statistics in white papers with the wrong conclusion.

Using statistics sparingly

As you develop your white papers, it’s okay to use statistics, but be careful you’re not overdoing things. If the majority of your paper is graphs and tables, scale back to a smaller number of them, particularly the simpler ones that are easier to understand.

Simplify statistics with familiar examples

One way to make statistics meaningful to more of your readers is to use analogies and other ways to illustrate the concept. For example, I wrote for an energy company that wanted to trumpet the fact that it managed 225 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually. We made that more tangible by saying that was enough gas to fill the old Hoosier Dome 4,500 times.

Another tactic that works more often is converting percentages to simple ratios. For example, instead of saying “40 percent of technicians,” you could ay “two in every five technicians.” That’s easier for the reader to visualize. Do the same thing in your word choices. “Our customer satisfaction ranks in the 74th percentile” may make perfect sense to you, but more people will grasp “nearly three out of every four customers are happy with our company.”

Not “dumbing down”

People who are comfortable with statistics and other numerical concepts may get frustrated about reworking information for a less number-friendly audience. Some may even reject the idea of having to “dumb down” their work to the lowest common denominator. But if the people you’re writing your white paper for don’t understand what you’re trying to convey, you’re wasting their time — and yours. Communication is all about making effective connections, and you’ll never connect if people can’t understand you.