Beware of spurious correlations

Human beings are wired to look for ‘meaning’, which makes us eager to spot connections that sometimes simply aren’t there. That’s never been truer than in today’s era of ‘big data’.

Tyler Vigen is a criminology student at Harvard who set up his own website to highlight how easy it can be to draw ludicrous conclusions from data because of the way we’re taught to look for patterns.

Vigen has loaded up a number of different sets of random data on his site and then cross-related them to identify apparent (but clearly nonsensical) statistical similarities. For example, as you can see above, there seems to be a clear link between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US.

Similarly, you might say there was a link between the per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets:

chart (1)

Clearly, there isn’t really a link in either case. But it’s easy to imagine that people might accept there was – and unnerving to realise how readily we accept this kind of correlation when presented to justify a medical or scientific or commercial conclusion.

Vigen calls them ‘spurious correlations’. You can find many more examples (and even create your own) by visiting www.tylervigen.com. It’s quite amusing.

Alternatively, you could look a little harder at some of the ‘facts’ that get used in presentations around your own business and see how many of them actually stand up to robust statistical scrutiny.

Not so amusing, but potentially more revealing.

 

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.

The power of the press

Archaeologists in Greece have just unearthed a clay tablet containing the oldest known extract of Homer’s Odyssey.

Although it dates back thousands of years, the tablet is nowhere near as old as the Odyssey itself, which is thought to date back to the 8th century BC.

In those days, of course, most stories were never written down, because very few people knew how to write. The only reason the Odyssey survived is because it was such a good story that people would learn it, word for word, and recite it around flickering campfires.

All that changed in 1439, when Johanes Gutenberg invented the mechanical printing press. For the first time, it became possible for written information to be shared beyond a tiny elite. It was a hugely significant moment in the emergence of the modern world: it democratised learning and led directly to the renaissance, the enlightenment and the revolutions (both political and industrial) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It also transformed the way we tell stories. Thanks to Gutenberg and those who followed him, we have the luxury of being able to forget things, because we know that forgetting them no longer means they are lost forever.

Which, in some ways, is a bit of a shame.

Like the ancient world to Homer’s Greek audience, modern businesses are complex and confusing things. The people who work in them, or buy from them, are busy and often distracted. And, like those ancient Greeks, they’re searching for meaning to help them make sense of it.

But the stories we tell have become much more complex, too. We don’t have to keep them simple any more because, thanks to Gutenberg and his successors (such as Microsoft and Google), we can write down and share as much detail as we like. We can weave in lots of different narratives and ideas. We can use film and graphics and satellite technology to add richness and detail and immediacy.

This can make our stories more engaging. But it can also make them less clear, harder to remember and, somehow, a bit less real.

When was the last time you heard someone in your business (or any business) give a compelling speech or presentation straight off the cuff, with no props?

When was the last time you read a company’s mission statement or values and thought ‘wow – I’d love to work for them’?

Is it time we stopped being so clever and got back to telling better stories?

Try this test on your own business:

Choose five people at random and tell them to imagine you’re someone they’ve just met at a party. Ask them to explain, in one sentence, what the business does.

Then ask them to explain, also in one sentence, what they do and what difference it makes to their customers.

That should give you a pretty good sense of (a) whether the people in your business actually have a shared sense of purpose and (b) whether they can articulate it in terms that are meaningful to anybody else.

If the answer to either of those is ‘no’, you’ve got some work to do.

 

The uncomfortable truth about fake news

You hear a lot about ‘fake news’ these days. Politicians use it as a label for stories they don’t want you to believe. Pundits use it to explain results they didn’t see coming. And most of us, if we’re honest, have a nagging worry about the truth being hijacked by unscrupulous rogue states and alt-right conspiracy theorists.

Are we right to be worried?

A few months ago, researchers at MIT published a study in the journal Science about how news spreads on social media.

They analysed 126,000 stories posted on Twitter between 2006 and 2017 and found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones.

They also found that the true stories took six times longer, on average, to reach an audience of 1,500 people.

In both cases, a massive discrepancy. And perhaps the most interesting finding from the research was that automated bots played no part in it.

As the authors of the study concluded:

‘False news spreads more than the truth, because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it… False news is more novel and people are more likely to share novel information’.

In other words, the reason fake news spreads faster and further than real news isn’t because the people who spread it are malicious or gullible or especially tech-savvy.

It’s because the fake news is more interesting – and we’d rather listen to an interesting lie than a dull truth.

That’s a lesson most organisations could learn from.

Most organisations go out of their way to present information in a formulaic and predictable way when they’re communicating with their workforce.

They use language that’s been carefully approved by committee (words that sound positive, but vague enough to be deniable if things don’t turn out as planned).

They repeat certain key phrases with mantra-like insistence, to ensure their messaging is ‘consistent’.

They strike a relentlessly upbeat tone, even when they’re talking about something everyone knows was a mess.

And then they wonder why the people in their organisation are far more interested in hearing about last night’s Love Island or rumours of a possible takeover.

The first rule of communication is that you can’t talk to people who aren’t listening.

If you want people to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, start by making sure it’s not dull.