Communicating Statistics Effectively | Stats and Stories at JSM / by Stats Stories


John Bailer is “the stats guy” and co-creator of Stats+Stories. He is also University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is currently President-elect of the International Statistical Institute and previously served on the previously on the ASA Board of Directors. His scholarly interests include the design and analysis of environmental toxicology experiments and occupational health studies, quantitative risk estimation, gerontological data analysis, promoting quantitative literacy and enhancing connections between statistics and journalism.

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Tarran: Hi everyone I’m Brian Tarran from Significance Magazine and I’m here in Denver Colorado at JSM 2019 in a role reversal with Stats and Stories host John Bailer. John, how are you?

Bailer: Oh, I’m just delighted to be here with you.

Tarran: Well, fantastic. Thanks for joining us on your show.

Bailer: It’s a pleasure to be on my show with you.

Tarran: So it’s been a busy few days here in Denver, we thought we’d have a catch-up before I fly out this afternoon back home, just to find out what you thought of JSM so far, what your highlights have been.

Bailer: I think it’s been a great meeting. I mean when you come to these meetings you’re overwhelmed with all the opportunities, all the different sessions that you can go to. I find it often maddeningly frustrating to see great talks always scheduled at the same time.

Tarran: Inevitably, and I think I spend a whole workday planning what I want to schedule, what I want to see, and I’ve still not narrowed it down to more than three things in each time slot, it’s crazy.

Bailer: Well, that’s why the random generation number helps.

Tarran: I’ll bear that in mind.

Bailer: We’ll assign you a die for the next conference that will help with your selection process.

Tarran: That will be useful. That will certainly save us some time. Well I was really surprised this year, going through the program, how many sessions spoke to me, as somebody who’s not a statistician, as a journalist- so somebody who’s- I’m not looking for technical sessions, I’m looking for things and papers and presentations that are about real issues, and there were quite a lot, I thought.

Bailer: You know there’s often the JSM and probably at RSS as well, these ideas of late-breaking sessions. So you often have things that tie to particular concerns that are emerging within the community, and the census of 2020 would be an example of one for the U.S audience. You know, thinking about questions about the citizenship question and what’s the potential impact? So that’s one that comes up. Another thing that’s changed a lot over time as I’ve been coming to these meetings is the number of sessions that are devoted to communicating statistics, it’s just really exploded.

Tarran: Well, we’ve come straight from a session on communication statistics with – there were four great speakers on that, and I think, maybe let’s reflect on that a little bit, things that we learned there. There’s Regina Nuzzo was the first presenter, talking about her new role at ASA. Sounds very exciting and she had loads of fantastic ideas for how statisticians can really start flexing their communication muscles because I’m a big believer that you know, there’s no good secret to great story-telling. Everyone has the ability to tell a story it’s just about practicing it and practicing it and trying new things, and I thought some of her ideas really jumped out as being things that should be tried out in the classroom.

Bailer: Oh, I agree completely I think that she had some great ideas about how we would connect- how the stat community would connect to questions related to whether you’re writing about stat issues or news you can use or making a creative narrative involving statistics, or debunking or criticizing or writing essays about statistics in society. These were all topics that she touched on and she also talked about different potential outlets for this work, ranging from posts on Quora to being involved in the conversation with another explicit outlet. I really like some of her writing strategies to practice. She mentions a series of drills that could be done and I was madly taking notes thinking about what I might do in a data practicum class or what I might think about myself, ranging from writing up a story or description in what she called one beat words or one-syllable words or writing with a thing explainer which I’ve got to now lookup on the web. That’s one of those XKCD resources that are available, or the time traveler explainer, going back a century past and trying to explain some modern concept. So I thought that she did a marvelous job and I’m really inspired by some of the ideas that she had there and not only inspired but challenged, and that’s one of the things is you get is the, “Oh man these people are doing such great work, how could I do that in my classes?”

Tarran: I thought the simplest thing to apply would be the idea- she talked about taking a technical summary from a paper and trying to translate that into laymen’s terms. That was something a couple of years ago at JSM, there was Joe Kragen-McGinty from The Wall Street Journal numbers column talking about how she does that. And I use that example quite a lot of people ask me to talk about the difference between statistical writing and general writing. So that’s something that can be practiced quite easily. The stats on the postcard idea was great, as a letter home to someone to say what I’ve seen and what I’ve enjoyed.

Bailer: Yeah, I was picturing “Doing statistics, wish you were here”.

Tarran: Yes, that would be fantastic. And I like the free-writing like she talked about. Just taking ten minutes and just sit down and write whatever you want.

Bailer: Do you ever do that?

Tarran: I don’t, no. but that’s because I spend most of my day writing, so I don’t.

Tarran: It’s what we call in the U.K. a busmen’s holiday. But I thought- and her talk was followed by Jenny Green who does a lot of podcast training with graduates, a lot of storytelling ideas, improvisation and that sort of thing and I thought some of her messages that really struck home to me about the importance of good storytelling and how it help us, not only to pay attention but to really understand and connect with the subject matter, which I think is something that is not necessarily appreciated enough. The importance of making a connection with the audience.

Bailer: Yeah, I think part of that is just thinking about the context. Like you said, it’s connecting to the audience. I mean for many of us our training and our backgrounds are focused on technical communication to a technical audience of technical subjects, and that’s very different than thinking about a translational effort. An activity where you’re trying to reach a more general audience where you are interpreting something technical or something that’s impactful for such an audience. I like some of her comments about the animation, a voice, you know, how you deliver something. That you need to use inflection you need to engage. I started reflecting on all of my time on the podcast and thinking “Oh, I hope I’m not an epic failure in doing this”. She also talked about the idea of using visuals as a crutch as part of presentations, and I find that to be something- I kind of reflect on that and I think about my own practice, and in fact how I train my students to present. She also talked about improvisation. Did you ever do any of that kind of stuff?

Tarran: Absolutely not. I detested drama at school and would not want to engage in improvisation. But having said that I think it’s something that we at the RSS where I’m based- we have a program called the stats ambassadors and some of the training they do is around that. They kind of give them two minutes to think about how to present the statistical concept in maybe 50 words or 100 words or something like that, so those sorts of skills are- or those sorts of exercises I think can really- Regina’s term was to “bring you out of your groove” and make you start thinking differently about communication.

Bailer: The ASA did this a few years ago at the JSM in Chicago and I participated in it and it’s an unbelievably awkward feeling. It takes you out of an environment where you have very much control of the message. Control of pacing control of content and you’re having to react, I mean you’re having to actively listen. Not unlike this experience right now Brian. You know we’re sort of- I’m listening to you and trying to attend to what you’re saying and then reacting to it and I think that’s a very important skill and the idea of nurturing it through improvisation is certainly one mechanism for doing it but I think that’s probably a good skill regardless of what you do and what your base is.

Tarran: Yeah. I think a lot of- if I bring my journalist perspective into it is a lot of mistakes journalists make when they’re first starting out is to stick rigidly to a list of questions, and then to not actually hear what the person is saying and not have a conversation, not evolve, not pick up on an idea and try and develop that a little bit.

Bailer: Well you know it’s funny that you- I’m sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt- but it’s funny that you mention that because I think when we first started Stats and Stories, we almost had everything overly scripted. Okay, Richard now it’s your time to ask this question. John pause for… and it comes off as very stilted. And we learned quite quickly that conversation is much better it’s more natural it’s more engaging and it’s more likely to not have people just switch channels, or stop playing a podcast.

Tarran: Yeah. Well, hopefully, we’ve still got people listening. But let’s switch it to a question that isn’t pre-scripted but one I have been thinking about for a while. So we were talking about communications, people sharing best practices in communication, are there any stand out presentations this year that you’ve seen that had a really powerful message delivered?

Bailer: I was very impressed with that last session we just attended. I mean maybe that is a proximity effect, but I also enjoyed the Deming award lecture that Nick Fisher was talking about his experience on things like performance measurement, and how it- he told a really nice story of how his initial introduction to ideas of quality in a process or in an industry. How it started with a Deming exposure and all the many people that impacted his thinking and how that evolved over time. I thought that was a nice thread of how his own thinking about a subject evolved, and who were the contributors of different points of time to help with that evolution. So I thought that was quite nice.

Tarran: Yeah, I saw- I didn’t see the Deming lecture but I did see the F.N. David lecture, the inaugural lecture and that was a fantastic session. So it started with a bit of background of who F.N. David was and the contributions that she had made, and why this lecture is named in her honor. And then it was Susan Ellenberg talking about the role that statisticians have played in development of randomized control trials and it was a whistle-stop talk through the history of randomized control charts, but it was fascinating to see just how important statistics have been to the evolution of what is one of the most important ideas for the advancement of public health medicine, that sort of area. So it was a fantastic thing to dig into and I think there was a lot of- she was quite great at giving lots of references so people could go and dig into detail in the history if they so choose.

Bailer: Well one of the things that’s really fun, Susan Ellenberg was also a Stats and Stories alum.

Tarran: Okay, I think I remember her session. Was it a few months back?

Bailer: It was-she was part of the International Prize and Statistics Committee so she was talking about Cox’s contribution to the proportional hazards model. But also she was talking about trying to do clinical trials in the context of emerging diseases. And so she does really cool stuff and I’ve appreciated that.

Tarran: She spoke very personally actually about her work with AIDS activists in the development of the search for cures and treatments for AIDS, and it was a very powerful message that she had about how initially there was nervousness and hesitance about getting involved because the activists come across as being quite brash and quite aggressive, but she was overwhelmed about the level of detail in knowledge that they had about how to do proper science and proper testing and trials of these treatments. I think she described it as one of her most rewarding professional experiences. That was a very personal but interesting account of a time in history.

Bailer: Yeah, I think that being able to partner with important problems, with colleagues that are working or advocacy groups or others that are really engaged by things that are pushing them and helping, that’s one of the blessings of statistics is to be involved in that. I would put a shout-out to the Florence Nightingale Museum in London which was a lot of fun to visit.

Tarran: Oh, I’ve never been.

Bailer: You’ve never been?

Tarran: Probably on my doorstep but yeah.

Bailer: It’s south of the river. My wife was a nurse and so we did that. She was a member of- had a great stat impact too.

Tarran: Well, next year is the bicentennial of her birth so maybe that’s a good excuse to visit.

Bailer: Is it really?

Tarran: Oh, and lots are being thought about and discussed and planned to celebrate this important occasion.

Bailer: Awesome.

Tarran: So maybe an event at the Florence Nightingale Museum is called for. So is there anything else that jumped out at you in the schedule this year that you want to discuss with the listeners?

Bailer: I don’t know, I’m still processing. You’re really catching me midst conference, and I often find, and perhaps this is other people’s experience that it takes you a while to go through your notes and thinking about it. I guess I’m really taking away some ideas about what I might do in my classes. I will tell you that from a Stats and Stories perspective I’m really- I’ve been excited about some new clients, some new guests that we’re going to be able to bring on. I think there are people that are doing amazing work. The new ASA series that relates to just science and society, there’s a new book in that series that’s coming out called Measuring Society, that we hope to get that person as a guest on an upcoming episode. So I’m very intrigued at these efforts and initiative to reach out and connect.

Tarran: Well, the question of measuring society is actually a very timely one because the president's invite address was from Teresa Sullivan University of Virginia, and she was talking about the foundational importance of the Census to the U.S.’s social-science infrastructure, social- statistics infrastructure, and the threats that it faces. Not only the citizenship question which might have left to response rates falling for certain categories for certain groups, but also the wider pressure that there is on social surveys to reduce cost. They are very expensive things. They’re not done cheaply because they need to be robust. And I thought that was a really fascinating session from a demographer role rather than a statistician, but arguing for statisticians to be much more vocal in defending the importance of the census and the importance of the social stats infrastructure.

Bailer: Yeah, I thought that was a very good talk as well and I think that idea of statisticians looking up and looking out to try to think about how we connect and how do we impact these important questions. I wonder if official statistics doesn’t get the kind of attention that it really deserves. I mean I don’t know that people really appreciate the role that these official statistics- whether it’s the official population counts and the allocation of representation or the allocation of block ransom funding or unemployment rates. I mean how these are all very important to think about the operation and the country- not just the U.S. but for any country around the world to consider this type of information for good decision making. And the fact that when these types of efforts are put at risk that there’s a potential impact that society and the government of that society is going to be making decisions based on unsound or unreliable information- that’s a nightmare.

Tarran: Yeah and I think that if anyone wants a primer in there I think that I could recommend for your summer reading list Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk, which talks exactly-it specifically addresses that topic. So I think it looks at things like weather data, safety data, and social data as well and how a lack of attention to these projects and a lack of investment and a lack of expertise overseeing them can cause long term damage, not only to democratic systems but to social systems, things that people rely on. So that’s one to add to the booklist.

Bailer: Okay. Maybe we can get him as a guest on Stats and Stories.

Tarran: Oh, that would be a good one.

Bailer: So I have a question for you. So how does the JSM compare to an RSS?

Tarran: So it’s a lot bigger, about ten times as big. So we have about 600 people that come along to the RSS conference, and there’s less overlap in sessions, so you get to see more of what you want to see rather than having to sacrifice some good papers in favor of other good papers. But it’s- they are largely the same. The social aspects of both conferences are equally important. It’s the opportunity to not only hear great talks but to meet with up with people that you wouldn’t normally get to see face to face – cramming whether it be 600 or 6,000 people in one space together is a really nice opportunity to sit down and have informal conversations, talk about ideas for upcoming articles, or in your case talk about upcoming podcasts maybe. And it surprised me coming to JSM, maybe less so with RSS, how people – basically in the U.K. 20 miles down the road from me I really only see them when we’re here, rather than back in the U.K. So yeah it’s much bigger but probably equally tiring and overwhelming in terms of the amount of good ideas and fun things to keep you occupied.

Bailer: Yeah and I think the networking part of it is so critical. I mean when you were asking about the sessions, and the sessions are good but in some ways, the conversation and the reconnecting with colleagues, and also finding out about what’s going on in different sectors is really a major part of the experience when I come to these meetings.

Tarran: Yeah, I think for me as an editor of a magazine, I kind of use it as a very quick and easy way to get an overview of what’s important to the discipline, what are statisticians talking about, what is their focus, what is their interest? And I think that whether we approach someone who’s presented and then develop their paper into an article- or not. Maybe it’s just an idea that bubbles away when we think about something further down the line. Sometimes it works the other way. It was really great to see so much focus on forensics statistics, forensic science statistics at JSM this year. We did a special issue in April in partnership with CSAFE and the Innocence Project and it was great to see a lot of what was in the magazine being presented to the audience in a different way and so maybe building on what was in the magazine.

Bailer: That’s really cool and Alicia Carriquiry was one of the CSAFE people that you’ve had and was also a guest on the podcast. And I think the partnership with Significance has just been delightful and I want to thank both you and the RSS along with the partnership with the ASA for helping make this a success.

Tarran: Oh well yeah, we like Stats and Stories obviously, it’s great to have a podcast colleague that we can work with, tap into, and hopefully do more together. So this is kind of me coming out to JSM and serving as your roving reporter. As a kind of trial run.

Bailer: I think this is great.

Tarran: I’m enjoying doing it. And we’ve got the RSS conference coming up in a few weeks. I’ll be in Belfast doing that and I plan to do the same so hopefully, you’ll have some content coming your way from Belfast. Perhaps I’ll be less jet-lagged in Belfast.

Bailer: You’ve put up a great front. I would never have guessed.

Tarran: I’m looking forward to my own bed I have to say, John. It’s been great, well thank you for the conversation now.

Bailer: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thanks for the time.

Tarran: No worries, and we’ll speak soon.

Bailer: Alright, look forward to it.

Brian Tarran: My name is Brian Tarran and I’m the editor of Significance Magazine. Find us online at For this special JSM series of podcasts we’re collaborating with Stats and Stories. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statics, and Media, Journalism and Film and the American Statistical Association. Follow us on Twitter, Apple podcasts or other places where you can find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on our program send your email to, or check us out at And be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.