Killer facts: a user's guide

‘Killer Facts’, are those punchy, memorable, headline-grabbing statistics that are picked up by the media and politicians and have immediate impact. In influencing terms, the right killer fact can be more effective than dozens of well-researched reports.

One particular killer fact will probably be carved on my gravestone. When Tony Blair visited Africa in 2002, I heard a BBC reporter saying something like ‘European cows probably get more than these people’. Along with Matt Griffith, a colleague at CAFOD (where I then worked), we went on the EU website and found the total number of cows in Europe. From the OECD website we got the annual level of support (government subsidy and impact of tariff protection) to the European dairy industry. Dividing one by the other yielded $2.20 per day per cow. Our subsequent paper led with the killer fact “The average European cow receives over $2 a day in support from the Common Agricultural Policy, which is more than half the world’s people earn.” Boom. We had Gordon Brown’s office on the phone checking the sources, and the ‘cow fact’ appearing in politicians’ speeches, articles and books such as ‘50 Facts That Should Change The World’.

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So what’s the DIY guide to killer facts? Most involve some kind of comparison:

Absurd contrast: a juxtaposition that is striking or outrageous.
Example (not necessarily real): Americans spend more money on cosmetics/ ice cream/ dog food than they do on aid

League Tables: Create an index or league table so you can say who is “best” and “worst”.
Example: Numerous league tables comparing corporate performance on social or environmental issues – the media love them, the companies hate them (unless they are top).

Big picture: the single statistic showing the scale of an issue.
Example: Remittances from overseas workers to developing countries are worth $240bn per year, over twice the global aid budget.

Human scale. Statistics can be so big that we can’t comprehend what they mean. Re-scale them to a size we can relate to.
Example: UK aid spending per person per day is less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Make sure they’re true: you will need to be able to defend them with credible sources

So there you have it – some of the NGOs’ not-particularly-dark arts revealed. And by the way, last time I looked, the European cow had had a pay rise to about $2.60 a day, but Japanese cows earn about $7 a day.

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2 Responses to “Killer facts: a user's guide”
  1. Duncan,
    speaking of “killer facts” – wanted to let you know that Brookings just released a new report today.
    The United States did not solve the problem of concentrated poverty in the 1990s. Trends in this new century demonstrate that many of the same communities that suffered in the 1970s and 1980s are suffering now from the economic downturn.

    Among the findings: In 2005, fully 30 percent of Fresno, California filers for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lived in areas of high working poverty, and nine other metro areas, including New York and St. Louis, had rates of at least 20 percent. Yet, three metro areas—Sacramento, San Diego and Washington, D.C.—had concentrated working poverty rates of zero.