Explaining statistical methods to the terrified & disinterested: A focus on metaphors


Many readers in applied areas (business, health, psychology & sociology, education, and several others) are reading statistics texts under duress for a course or project, and are in truth somewhere between disinterested and terrified. In my new SAS Press book Business Statistics Made Easy in SAS® I knew that I had to maximize the use of several classic pedagogical methodologies to facilitate reader understanding, while minimizing the use of mathematical development. These are all well-known and are used in many statistical texts; however, this blog mentions some of these key explanatory techniques and gives a few tips for successful use.

I believe that the key techniques for non-technical explanation are:

  1. Metaphors: we’ll cover this in more detail in this blog
  2. Pictures & diagrams
  3. Organizational cases / vignettes
  4. Storytelling

Making metaphors work

In this technique, we compare a statistical concept to some other concept in life to which readers can relate. For example, in Business Statistics Made Easy in SAS®:

  • The concept of statistical modeling is explained using star signs.
  • The difference between correlation and covariance is illustrated using an adaptation of the classic ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory.
  • I employ a courtroom argument to try to anchor p-values.

In easily relating to the metaphor, the statistical concept becomes more easily understood so long as the overlaps are explained well. I believe that metaphors are the best alternative to mathematics for explaining abstract concepts. The key success factors are:

  1. The metaphor should be familiar to the reader.
  2. The metaphor should be visually striking and memorable! Consider showing a video clip in a class to prep the metaphor (e.g. from the movie ‘The Butterfly Effect’ for the example above).
  3. The metaphor should have sufficient overlap with the statistical concept to allow for the comparison to make sense.
  4. However, the metaphor should be sufficiently different from the concept that the comparisons are thought provoking.

In further blogs, I will unpack various metaphors that are used in Business Statistics Made Easy in SAS® for those interested in their use.


About Author

Gregory Lee

Research Director

Professor Gregory John Lee is currently the Research Director and an Associate Professor in Research Methodology and Decision Sciences at the AMBA-rated Wits Business School, Johannesburg, South Africa. He has authored books on HR Metrics, including his newest title, Business Statistics Made Easy in SAS. Lee focuses on issues in human resource management, notably HR metrics, in which he has established himself as a leading expert, and other areas such as training, employee turnover, and the employee-customer link. He has served in many capacities within the international academic field and has sat on the GMAC Advisory Council, the editorial board of the Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology, and he engages in frequent reviewing for many journals. In addition, Lee is a well-known consultant, writer, and speaker in the corporate and practical management arenas, notably in the area of HR metrics but extending to other areas such as human resources strategy and foresight.

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