Truth in Advertising

Scott Maxwell sums up 10 ways to lie with metrics. This is great advice for the political strivers and schemey backstabbers and a great antipattern for the readership of this blog. To summarize, here are his ten ways to lie when presenting data:

  1. Only present metrics that are positive. That’s why you collect all those metrics.
  2. Only present metrics that are easy to manage.
  3. Use many metrics.
  4. Be extremely precise with your numbers.
  5. Present quickly, drown ’em with data.
  6. Say "you don’t break down metrics" if they aren’t flattering to you.
  7. Put lipstick on that pig—apply lots of gloss to your charts. Hello, Crystal XCelsius!
  8. Show off your bona fides by sharing some metrics "off the cuff".
  9. Prep your team by feeding them lines.
  10. Your job isn’t to educate your audience about your metrics. If people don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s because they’re stupid.

This is a great list, and it’s hard to avoid committing some of this sins from time-to-time. I think the best tool to improve your honesty when presenting numbers is to respect the intelligence and good judgment of your audience.

This isn’t easy; we all have people who can drive us crazy, who can derail a presentation with niggling questions or who ask for information they’ll never use.

There is no magic bullet when presenting numbers. Your job is not merely to show a few columns of numbers, but to teach your colleagues what those numbers mean.

[Editors note: Read the comments! David has some timely additions to this list.]