Between the Lines: Human-Scale Statistics 

In The Science of Speaking, I note that when numbers are very large or very small, it’s often good to present them by using an analogy. For example:

The accuracy required to land a spacecraft on Mars is like Steph Curry throwing a basketball from the three-point line of the Oracle Arena (in California) and hearing it swish in Madison Square Garden (in New York) just as the buzzer sounds.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath present a similar analogy along with data to back up its utility. Compare the following two examples, they say:

  1. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from the sun to the earth and hitting the target within one third of a mile of dead center.
  2. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.

When presented with the first analogy, 58% of people thought this feat was “very impressive.” When presented with the second analogy, 83% of people thought so!

The key, then, is not just to use an analogy, but to use an analogy that lives at the human scale, placing numbers on a scale that we can wrap our heads around. As the Heaths note, this can take some finessing. In both analogies, the distance from California to New York is still a bit intangible. “The problem,” they explain, “is that if you make the distance more tangible—like a football field—then the accuracy becomes intangible. ‘Throwing a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns’ doesn’t help.”

As another illustration of human-scale statistics, the Heaths present an example taken from Stephen Covey’s The 8th Habit, in which Covey presents the findings of a survey of 23,000 employees from a variety of industries. Here are the findings:

  • Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why.
  • Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and their organization’s goals.
  • Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals.
  • Only 15 percent felt that their organization fully enables them to execute key goals.
  • Only 20 percent fully trusted the organization they work for.

As the Heaths note, this is “pretty sobering stuff. It’s also pretty abstract. You probably walk away from these stats thinking something like ‘There’s a lot of dissatisfaction and confusion in most companies.'” But “then Covey superimposes a very human metaphor over the statistics.”

If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.

As the Heaths note, “the soccer analogy generates a human context for the statistics. It creates a sense of drama and a sense of movement. We can’t help but imagine the actions of the to players trying to score a goal, being opposed at every stage by the rest of their team.”

Whenever you are presenting statistics, see what you can do to humanize them, either by shrinking them (or blowing them up) to a human scale, or presenting them in the context of a human story. By doing so, you’ll make your numbers even more impactful.

Note: This advice is a nice practical supplement to yesterday’s post about how great leaders appeal more to emotion and intuition than they do to logic. By humanizing your statistics, you can begin to transform logic into emotion and intuition, making your appeals even more effective. For a good example of this in action, see Hans Rosling’s TED talk about the magic washing machine.

Between the Lines: I’m Not a Good Speaker … Yet

In yesterday’s blog post, we saw that public speaking doesn’t require genius—instead, it’s a skill that anyone can develop. This is an idea that deserves further explanation.

To elaborate on this idea, here is an excerpt on the power of mindsets from my first book (with Richard Powers), Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living. Although it was written in the context of social dancing, it is equally applicable to public speaking.

In sharing the lessons of this book with the world, there is one particular obstacle that we often run into. We’ll be talking with someone about the benefits of dancing, when they’ll stop us and say, “I admire what you’re doing. But I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t dance!

Ironically, this statement is a perfect illustration of one of the potentially life-changing ideas we want to share with you: the power of holding different mindsets.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

The person who says to us, “I can’t dance,” is revealing that they hold what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.

People with fixed mindsets believe that certain kinds of abilities—whether the logical and linguistic abilities required to pass exams, or the physical, musical, and interpersonal abilities required for social dancing—are fixed from birth.

“You’re either smart or you’re dumb, and you either can dance or you can’t.”

Not everyone believes this, however. Those who hold a growth mindset believe that these abilities are not entirely fixed, but rather that they can change and grow. According to those who hold a growth mindset, these abilities can, and must, be developed.

Performance vs. Mastery Goals

As a result of these differing beliefs about ability, people with different mindsets tend to adopt different goals.

People who believe their abilities are fixed tend to adopt a goal of performance, focusing on demonstrating their fixed abilities by showing off and outperforming others.

Those who believe their abilities can grow, on the other hand, tend to adopt a goal of mastery, focusing on developing their growing abilities by taking on new challenges and learning.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

As explained in Mindset, Dweck’s book summarizing her decades of research on the subject, a fixed mindset leads to a desire to look smart. Therefore, someone with a fixed mindset has the tendency to avoid challenges, to give up easily, to see effort as fruitless, to ignore useful negative feedback, and to feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, those with a fixed mindset often plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, leads to a desire to learn. Therefore, someone with a growth mindset has the tendency to embrace challenges, to persist in the face of setbacks, to see effort as the path to mastery, to learn from criticism, and to find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result, those with a growth mindset tend to reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

In this way, the mindsets become self-fulling prophecies: those with fixed mindsets see their abilities plateau, and those with growth mindsets see their abilities grow.

There are two kinds of people. One kind you can tell just by looking at them as what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas the other kind keeps moving, changing. … They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard against congealing.
—Ursula Devane, The Finishing School

Developing a Growth Mindset

Fortunately, as Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated in studies of a wide range of abilities—in school, business, sports, and art—a growth mindset can be learned and taught.

People who are introduced to the growth mindset idea tend to shift from fixed to growth mindsets, and as a result, dramatically improve their abilities.

Likewise, people who are introduced to environments that reinforce mastery are more likely to adopt a growth mindset with mastery goals, and challenge themselves to greater heights. Environments that reinforce mastery encourage self-direction and intellectual risk-taking and discourage evaluation and competition. The social dance hall is a great example.

Importantly, these shifts in mindset tend to persist, even when people leave these mastery environments and return to their regular working environments. This shows once again that what we learn on the dance floor can sneak home with us to improve the rest of our lives.

I Can’t Dance … Yet

When potential social dancers tell us they can’t dance, what they really mean to say is that they can’t dance yet. The only problem is that they forget the yet.

And while you, reader of Waltzing, may not have this particular problem, we hope that this greater understanding of mindsets will help convince your friends who “can’t dance” to join you. We also hope that this will help you apply your growth mindset universally, pursuing all of the challenges that interest you, whether in painting, science, or public speaking.