How to write Killer Facts and Graphics – what are your best examples?

Killer Fact attackTime for a spot of crowd sourcing. We’ve had research guidelines on our intranet for ages, covering everything from survey design to writing for impact. Now we’re updating them and, more importantly, making some of them public on Oxfam’s Policy and Practice website. I’ve been lumbered with revising the ‘Killer Fact’ two pager, so naturally thought I would try and use the blog to get other people to do the work for me. Here’s the draft – all comments welcome, but particularly, give me your best killer facts under each heading (or suggest new headings) – with links please. Honourable mentions to the best suggestions. ‘Killer Facts’, are those punchy, memorable, headline-grabbing statistics that cut through the technicalities to fire people up about changing the world. They are picked up and repeated endlessly by the media and politicians. They are known as ‘killer’ facts because if they are really effective, they ‘kill off’ the opposition’s arguments. The right killer fact or graphic can have more impact than the whole of a well-researched report. Suggestions for how to do it There are various kinds of killer facts. Most involve some kind of comparison:

Type of killer fact  Example (please click on the link for sources) 
Big Number: the single statistic showing the size of the problem
  • Armed conflict costs Africa $18 billion a year
  • A Eurozone breakup could cost the poorest countries $30 billion in lost trade and foreign investment
  • Remittances from overseas workers to developing countries are worth $372 billion a year, 3 times the global aid budget
Juxtaposition to highlight injustice and double standards
  • It would cost $66 billion to get everyone on the planet out of extreme poverty – 4% of global military spending [From Poverty to Power second edition, forthcoming]
  • A woman’s risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes ranges from 1 in18 in Nigeria to 1 in 8,700 in Canada.
And absurdity can make a juxtaposition much more memorable 
Surprising Stats
Humanizing abstract issues
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.
Killer Graphics Graphs can speak louder than words, as can infographics [example below]. They can illustrate the contrasts of killer facts but in addition   Do’s and Don’ts DO:
  • Be totally certain of the data you use to create your killer fact. The sources must be reliable and respected, and as up to date as possible. You should reference them in your report.
  • Be ready to provide sources to media or politicians – if the killer fact succeeds, they will be on the phone very quickly and you need your sources ready!
  • Make sure that the fact can’t be misinterpreted, i.e. that the language is not too convoluted. Otherwise journalists will attempt to re-write it in plain terms and accidentally twist your meaning. The same applies to killer graphics: make sure they can be readily understood and not given alternative interpretations.
  • Make sure the best killer facts are included in the executive summary and the press release – ask someone other than the author, e.g. a media officer, to read through the paper and pick out the best ones.
  • Plan ahead: early on when working on your report, decide on the kind of killer facts you would really like to have. Does the data already exist to fill it out? If not, is it possible to generate that data?
  • Working out killer facts can take a long time – it often involves adding statistics up in a way that they are not usually added up. So make the time, or get a research assistant to help you with all the calculations.
  • Cut corners on killer facts. They are crucial to a report’s impact. If you are exhausted and have run out of inspiration (a common problem late on in the writing process!) ask a media officer or campaigner to help with ideas.
  • Use too many killer facts in one paper: focus on the most powerful. Otherwise they overwhelm the reader.
  • Rely on killer facts that have been overused in the past: keep it contemporary, relevant, and interesting.
  • Use a killer fact that is not credibly sourced, even if it fits your message. It is not worth damaging your credibility for quick hit.
And remember – if in doubt, leave it out! Over to you…….]]>

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14 Responses to “How to write Killer Facts and Graphics – what are your best examples?”
  1. Ray

    I think sometimes in the search for a killer fact- you can overlook statistical fallacies.
    It’s also important to note the distinction between a killer fact being false, and it being misleading.
    In WWII- there was a statistic that no German planes had been shot down by anti-aircraft weapons on UK ships. This was true- but misleading if it made you think there was no point to having the anti-aircraft guns. In fact- the German planes would target ships without anti-aircraft guns.
    So maybe ‘Do- check your killer fact with someone with statistical training’ to avoid fallacies.

  2. John Magrath

    We all need to use killer facts but too often repetition without updating means the facts we use become untrue, to a lesser extent(i.e. it doesn’t essentially matter) or a greater extent (i.e. it does matter because it has become so far from reality). That stat about there being 2 bullets for every person on the planet is currently probably “true” enough – there are 12 billion bullets according to Oxfam and 7 billion people….but it’s not quite accurate is it?, and it will change further with time and a switch in either variable. So it’s crucial to source and date killer facts. Another example is the famous”a child dies every 20 seconds from…diarrhoea or water-related disease” which is oft-cited and repeated in credible sources (UN Water, WaterAid etc) and it expresses a grim truth; but, is it actually any longer accurate enough to justify continued repetition? And does it perpetuate a static view of what the world is like that blinds us to what is actually happening through time? I say this having just looked at the WHO health statistics for 2012. They say the annual deaths of children under 5 in 2009 fell to 8.1 million, down by 35% from 1990 when it was 12.4 million. Page 80 says diarrhoea caused 10% of deaths in 2010 (12% in 2000) which would mean 810,000 children died from this which, if my maths is right, means a child dies from diarrhoea not every 20 seconds, but more like every 40 seconds. Still a shocking statistic and one that calls for action, but I think we appear almost unscrupulous if we continue to use statistics that imply that nothing has changed. Perhaps someone else can check my maths, and if I’m right, what do you think?

    • Duncan

      I know what you mean, but I get more exercised when we use stats that were never actually true in the first place, just because they reinforce our preferred message. You can probably guess which one I’ve got in mind!

  3. Claire P

    “You can probably guess which one I’ve got in mind!”
    >>> Is it: the global hunger crisis affecting “1 billion people” or “one-sixth of humanity”?
    A key problem is these killer facts can often take on lives of their own, all too often w/o scrutiny, w/o caveat.
    I’d second Ray’s “Do- check your killer fact with someone with statistical training’ to avoid fallacies.”
    And add: “Do- make extremely clear what people should (and shouldn’t) infer from any ‘killer facts'” +
    “Do- realize ‘killer facts’ often take on lives of their own and consider this entire ‘life-cycle’ before deciding to use one”

  4. Pete

    Do not use “could” or “up to” in killer facts.
    These instantly take any credibility out the fact, after all, I could be run over by a bus travelling up to 80 mph this evening – but is it likely?

  5. Pete

    I was surprised at the maternal mortality rate in Nigeria killer fact in your blog (“A woman’s risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes ranges from 1 in18 in Nigeria”) – so I checked it.
    The good news is that it is out of date. Depending on sources of information, the maternal mortality ratio is between:
    630 deaths per 100,000 – using 2010 data from
    840 deaths per 100,000 – using 2008 data from the CIA fact book –
    Combined with a fertility rate of about 5 births per woman (again, sources vary from 4.8 to 5.6), gives a typical woman a 1 in 32 risk of dying, at the 2010 figure given by the world bank, or a 1:24 risk with the CIA 2008 figure.
    Still way too high of course, but as John says, killer facts ought to be updated, and it still remains shocking. (A simple way to halve the risk would be to have half as many children – or maybe life’s not that simple…)
    NB Life expectancy at birth in Nigerial is still lower for men than women (men 46.8 years, women 48.4 years, indexmund, 2011 estimate), so it’s still safer to be a Mum than a Dad? But this is adding context to a killer fact – which is surely goes against the whole point of it being a killer fact in the first place?

  6. Daria

    Duncan, I would add to the classification a type ‘yes, but’. Although this type probably would have overlaps with the other types, I would say it deserves a separate category. It is precisely the kind of killer facts that we are using here in Russia, and I would assume that this is smth that is used in China, and a range of other MICs countries. In the context, when you’re dealing with ‘unwilling’ government, and when this government is your main advocacy target, your killer facts will have to inevitably incorporate some sort of recognition of that government’s success. For example, in the poverty brief that I recently wrote for our domestic programme, I used the following statement ‘while absolute poverty rate in Russia decreased from 29% to 13% between 2000 and 2011, today, 18,000,000 Russians still live in poverty’.

    • Duncan

      Well if you just make it up, you will get caught, eventually (and spend the intervening time worrying about when you will get caught, which is very stressful)…….

  7. Wolfgang

    Dear Mr. Green,
    you must be rather busy – may I have short question anyway?
    I am looking for a website or information source providing killer facts (as you call them) which illustrate international „(non)-efforts“ to achieve the UN MDGs (comparing against spent on Ice cream, military budgets etc- all the things politicians may say „one can not really compare“).
    But the facts need to come with very solid references and absolutely reliable sources which are missing in 99% of the cases (see the table in your blog?!).
    Any hints?
    Thank you very much!
    Yours, sincerely

    • Duncan

      should be links to the KFs in my blog post Wolfgang. Major multilateral reports (WDR, Human Development Report, Global Monitoring Reports etc). They’re all pretty good at KFs now!