Numbers and data can be powerful. They can also be misinterpreted. To make sure your numbers make your point, deliver them in context. It can be dangerous if you don't.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story on how a key treatment for postmenopausal women fell off the map, depriving women of help for a potentially debilitating phase.

After a large well-funded but flawed study, women fled from the traditional treatment fearing that it would cause more harm than good. Because the authors of the study didn't present their findings in context, women stopped taking hormone therapy. Media made the problem worse. 

Susan Dominus' Times story recounts the events on the TODAY show in 2002. What happened was a two-part communications fiasco.

Part 1: The TODAY show picked the most alarming way to present the data. The host rang the alarm bells "And to be very specific here, you actually found that heart disease, the risk increased by 29 percent. The risks of strokes increased by 41 percent. It doubled the risk of blood clots. Invasive breast cancer risk increased by 26 percent.”

The word "specific" was an attempt to suggest the host was applying rigor, but it actually did the opposite of that. Yes, the risk had increased but the overall risk was still small, especially relative to other choices people make all day long.

Part 2: Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, the epidemiologist, was in a tough spot as an interviewee facing a host giving your work national exposure. But she didn’t put those numbers in context. Yes, the data was correct, but it wasn’t the whole picture.

One way to get out of that pinch is to respond to the host's sensationalism with a different story. Here is the excellent way Dominus did it:

The increase in the risk of breast cancer, for example, could also be presented this way: A woman’s risk of having breast cancer between the ages of 50 and 60 is around 2.33 percent. Increasing that risk by 26 percent would mean elevating it to 2.94 percent. (Smoking, by contrast, increases cancer risk by 2,600 percent.) Another way to think about it is that for every 10,000 women who take hormones, an additional eight will develop breast cancer. 

Some ways to keep numbers from being weaponized in an interview:


1. Deliver your data in a context sandwich. "Keep in mind that the overall incidence is small, even though this is an increase, comparatively it’s no worse than being pregnant.”

2. Use a comparison that’s easily understandable.

3. Simplify the comparison down to the smallest number (for example instead of for every 100,000 women, an additional 80 will develop breast cancer, using Dominus’ for every 10,000 women, an additional 8…)

3. Pre-load your brain with phrases to keep the audience from getting the wrong impression. "To keep this in context," or "We don't want to alarm people".

No matter what the fact is, try to pair it up with a contextual buddy. Numbers are safer in numbers.

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Anne  Dickerson

Anne Dickerson

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