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Man cooking up shoddy statistics on laptop

Quick tip: Don’t use numbers out of context

White papers need solid proof to make their case.

So please don’t fabricate shoddy statistics out of thin air.

If you try to make up a snappy-sounding statistic, you’re taking a huge risk.

You’re gambling that:

  • You can get away with deceiving prospects
  • No one will question your sources or analysis
  • No one will say anything to anyone else if they uncover the deception

Remember the goal of your white paper: To build a connection and position your company as a trusted advisor.

If you fumble that goal by using shoddy statistics, prospects will trust you less. They may avoid buying from the company. They may even go on social media to badmouth you.

Is that what you want? Is that why your client is paying you?

Of course not.

Example: a number taken out of context

One common form of shoddy statistic is a number taken out of context.

While at first glance this can look great or terrible, it’s actually meaningless.

I was traveling over Thanksgiving and picked up a free newspaper in a hotel: the Canadian National Post for Tuesday, November 21, 2023.

National Post front page Justin Trudeau


Here’s the biggest headline on the front page:

PM devotes 25% of his time to ‘personal days’

Sounds terrible, right?

Here’s the lead paragraph:

“Since coming to power in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken 680 “personal days”—the equivalent of 22 months or nearly two years—an analysis of his public itineraries shows.”

These numbers are drawn from the Prime Minister’s official schedules, so the data is presumably reliable.


But what does this statistic mean?

When you turn to page 4—which not every reader does—the article carries on:

The bulk of these days—68%—were taken on weekends, and spent mostly in the National Capital Region.

That’s Ottawa, the capital of Canada where Trudeau lives.

And here’s the real kicker:

The Prime Minister’s personal day rate of 24% is still well below the 34% of days in a year most Canadian workers are off, including statutory holidays and two weeks of paid vacation.

So in fact, Trudeau takes less personal time off than the average worker!

Listen, I’m not a big fan of Justin Trudeau.

But if you’re trying to prove he’s a slacker, you need something more substantial than this faked-up statistic.

Why is this stat shoddy?

Trudeau probably does take 24% of the week for personal time.

But that stat is taken way out of context:

  1. It includes weekends, which are personal time for most jobs
  2. It’s stretched from 22 months to “nearly two years”
  3. It’s presented in a vacuum, with no other stats for comparison

As soon as we know that most workers get 34% of the week for personal time, the shock value of this stat disappears like hot air from a popped balloon.

The National Post is a conservative newspaper that often criticizes Trudeau and his Liberal party. Fair enough.

But this story was fabricated to give the impression that Trudeau is a slacker who collects his pay from hard-working taxpayers but puts in little effort in return.

This kind of clickbait works well in the echo chamber for all those who dislike Trudeau.

But it doesn’t stand up to the slightest inquiry.

Farmer in black boots digging in soil with shovel

The only alternative: Keep digging

The alternative to making sh*t up is to do your research properly.

If you can’t find the proof you need, keep digging. Check different sources.

And if you turn over every stone and can’t find anything to back up your argument, talk it over with the white paper sponsor.

You may need to reconsider the angle you’re working on.

In my analysis of 300 white papers I worked on, seven were canceled because there was just no story there, nothing to back up our claims.

If that’s the case, admit it and reframe your project.

Don’t be tempted to make up statistics to fill the gap.

When the truth comes out, you and the company you’re writing for will look very bad indeed.


For more useful tips like this, subscribe to my free newsletter, White Paper World


About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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