With Context, Bolstering Story-Telling Quality is No Contest

One of the best pieces of humor that I encountered growing up came from an unlikely source: the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the well-worn paperback that I’d flip through from time to time, there was a listing for the tallest man in history, Robert Wadlow. A photograph complemented his staggering stats at various stages in his short (well, brief) life. The picture showed a bespectacled Robert, attired dapperly in what appears to be a living room, as he towers over a brother.

Here was the kicker: The photo caption parenthetically pointed out that Robert was the one in glasses.

For all I know, the caption writer was earnestly endeavoring to direct readers’ attention to the record-breaking exceedingly tall guy. Hey, let’s ensure there’s no confusion. More likely, I suspect, this was a ray of fun amid the tedium of assembling all the book’s facts and figures.

It has been at least 20 years since I’ve looked at the photo for the umpteenth time. But I can still see it in my mind’s eye—how Robert always brought to mind President Woodrow Wilson, how his brother had matinee-idol looks, how Robert hovered over a chandelier.

Those details remain vivid, but until I did a quick Internet search, I was hard-pressed to guess within even a few inches of Robert’s 8-foot-11-inch height.

The point is as old as the hills—that a picture is worth 1,000 words, that we are visual creatures, that “showing, not telling” is a story-telling essential.

Now for a point that may be new to you: we have an absolute responsibility not to leave any number on its own, as if just by its mere, mute presence, it can tell any kind of story. This is particularly true when we don’t have a photograph handy to drive home a given point.

Yet we do it all the time.

We tell you that there were 55 cow-tipping incidents last weekend in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, or 44% of U.S. households watch the evening news, or that water consumption is going up 30% over the next 20 years. As if any of that tells any kind of a story.

What’s missing, of course, is context. How many cow tippings are typical in Stevens Point? Is 44% more or less than in the past for evening news-watchers? What other factors, such as population, are projected over the next two decades so we may gauge if the water consumption claim is even newsworthy?

Insistence on putting numbers in context is at the heart of Go Figure-ing and Making Numbers Count. I stress it even more than my burgeoning crusade to reduce our society’s sloppy overindulgence in the vague “several,” which in itself is a form of context neglect and abuse.

What makes contextlessness (yeah, I made the word up) so inexcusable is that it can be so easily fixed with two power tools. They are:

Tool I: A wisely chosen word or few words.

Tool II: A wisely worded sentence.

That’s it—it’s that simple!

Now, for the hard parts: Which word? And which sentence?

As for the wisely chosen word, in the end it is subjective. But just a little homework on the topic at hand will give you the word and the sentence to elevate your writing. For example, consider this contextlessness report:

“Kicker Zach Columbo was cut Tuesday from the football team. He made 11 of 16 field-goal attempts through the team’s first 10 games.”

I’ve seen stories in which a reporter makes wrong assumptions and inserts “only” before “11” to proclaim that therein lurked the problem. Only problem is, the “only” was misplaced—the nearly 70-percent conversion rate was solid.

Setting aside other issues such as possible personality clashes with teammates or other factors not necessarily reflected in his on-field numbers, at the very least your job is to find out how other kickers in the league are faring. Is Columbo above average, below average? By how much?

A little more digging can turn up other relevance: How many of his successful field goals have come from close range and in the comfy confines of an indoor stadium? What has he done lately that might have prompted his firing?

Now you might have a report like this:

“Despite having a field-goal percentage that is slightly higher than the league norm, kicker Zach Columbo was booted Tuesday from the football team.

On Sunday, for the third week in a row, Columbo kicked his place-holder in the head and whiffed entirely on field goal tries that would have provided his team with last-second wins. Teammates said Columbo, on his way out of the locker room, vowed he would see an eye doctor about double-vision problems he’s been experiencing in high-pressure situations.”

What brought this all to mind was a story in a major daily newspaper on water consumption going up 30 percent over a 20-year period in a certain area. The increase was described as “whopping” and “soaring.” But take a few deep breaths, maybe even a sip of water, and then you’ll see the average annual growth in water consumption is not even 1 ½ percent (factoring in compounding growth).

I won’t even delve into the population growth that is projected over that time, which, as the story itself acknowledged, meant that the per capita water consumption could actually decline.

So “whopping” is more like wimpy and “soaring” is just plain silly. Seems this story’s equation was along the lines of (Really Slow News Day) X (Really Bad Math)=A Really Questionable Story.

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