Neither instant adoption nor outright rejection is rational without first considering a statistic's source.
"Statistically speaking, the
average human has one breast
and one testicle."
– Des McHale, humorist and author
The first editorial I ever wrote for EXHIBITOR discussed a spurious little stat cited so frequently it took on a life of its own: that trade shows are the second largest source of commercial waste in the United States. Propagated during the height of the industry's sustainability movement in 2008, it sounded believable. And because it was attributed to the Environmental Protection Agency, most accepted it as fact. But after months of trying to find the origin of the research, my statistical grail quest came to a screeching halt, as the alleged EPA report didn't exist. In reality, the sound bite was little more than the opinion of a third-party source in a Trade Show Week article.
Partly due to that experience, I'm particularly careful when conducting EXHIBITOR's research initiatives, and I take great pains to personally locate the source of any statistics that appear within the magazine. But I wasn't always so careful. In 2006, roughly one year into my job at EXHIBITOR, I used a statistic that a source attributed to a study conducted by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research: that 80 percent of leads generated on the trade show floor go unfulfilled. I took the source at his word, and the story went to press. Three years later, while working on another lead-management piece, I reached out to CEIR for the name of the study. For years, press releases, speakers, and magazine articles had cited this stat. But it must be taken with a hefty grain of salt, because CEIR informed me that no such report had ever been issued.
I continued pursuing the stat's provenance, convinced it must be based on a kernel of truth, if for no other reason than so many sources had cited it. When pressed for specifics, most sources stood behind the sound bite. Even when they were told that CEIR hadn't conducted the survey in question, many assured me it was an accurate and commonly held belief.
So in 2010, EXHIBITOR conducted its own survey of more than 100 corporate exhibit managers and found that, on average, 60 percent of trade show leads receive some sort of follow-up – three times the accepted average of 20 percent, per the now-debunked truism. Still, eight years later, that 80-percent sound bite continues to make the rounds, including a 2017 article on Entrepreneur.com, which claims the stat comes from "a survey conducted by Salesforce at major trade shows." But even that's misleading at best, given the fact that all Salesforce did was print fake business cards, pass them out to exhibitors at one trade show in 2011, and track the percentage that followed up. In other words, one woman's experience at a single trade show seven years ago is still being positioned as truth.
Statistics are funny things. They tend to either reaffirm what we know or fly in the face of strongly held beliefs. If they echo our personal feelings, we often accept them at face value and regurgitate them to prove our point. If, however, they are at odds with our convictions, we dismiss them outright or question their legitimacy. But neither instant adoption nor outright rejection is rational without first considering a statistic's source and investigating its methodology.
More than a decade later, I still feel guilty for trusting my source and using that sound bite. That's my cross to bear. But yours is to stop repeating stats just because they help make your case. In the words of author Rex Stout, "There are two kinds of statistics: the kind you look up and the kind you make up."
Be careful which kind you cling to. Seek out sources you trust. And don't believe everything you read. After all, according to an EPA report, 99 percent of statistics are made up anyway.