Tim Harford on telling data stories with audio: “You need to keep simplifying”

Tim Harford

Tim Harford photo by Emily Qualey

Economist and podcaster Tim Harford, author of How To Make The World Add Up, spoke to MA Data Journalism students this month. In a guest post for OJB Niels de Hoog rounds up Tim’s tips on creating compelling number-driven stories for radio and podcasts 

Orson Welles famously said that there’s nothing an audience won’t understand, as long as you can get them to be interested.

Listening to Tim Harford’s podcasts it is clear that he has taken this message to heart.

“If you’ve got a hook, a personality, or a question people want answered, that will carry people through a certain degree of complexity that they wouldn’t tolerate if it was reported straight.”

Take More or Less, his podcast about statistics for BBC Radio 4. At first glance it doesn’t offer the easiest subject for an engaging audio story — yet somehow the programme is very entertaining to listen to.

The show delves into the numbers behind the news, and debunks many false claims in the process.

Data stories on audio: it’s all about simplifying

Tim explains that when telling a number story, you need to avoid including too many details.

“I spend a lot of time stripping scripts of details that reporters have put in,” he says.

“It’s partly about focus. We can’t give people all the numbers; we can’t tell all the stories — so what’s interesting here?”

For the numbers that you do need to share, Tim suggests using words like ‘approximately’ or ‘about’. In most cases the audience doesn’t need those decimal places.

He also says that you shouldn’t worry about your listeners getting everything single detail.

“If you give people the bottom line clearly, then they can miss details and that’s OK.”

Many stories come with several caveats. In the interest of the story, Tim suggests doing one of those cautionary elements really well, and bracketing the others.

“With audio you need to keep simplifying”, he says. “It’s tempting to overcomplicate.”

Narrative structure and Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales, another podcast presented by Tim Harford, uses narrative structure to explain ideas from social science and safety engineering.

The first episode of Cautionary Tales starts with the story of the Torrey Canyon, an oil tanker that shipwrecked on the western coast of England.

As the story unfolds, listeners are aware that it won’t end well, but they don’t yet know why, and what the consequences will be.

This suspense is what allows Tim to delve into the psychological theory underpinning the captain’s actions, without losing the attention of the audience.

The story switches back and forth between the oil tanker approaching the rocks, and an explanation of ‘plan continuation bias’, the cognitive bias that played a key role in the disaster.

Footnotes can still be relevant in audio

Unlike written stories, audio doesn’t allow for the inclusion of footnotes. Tim explains that they are still relevant, but they just can’t be broadcast.

“As you’ve got multiple people working on a script. There will be a number in that script, and someone else will be working on the script and they need to know where that number came from.”

Often, the story of how a number was produced becomes a story in itself.

“I find it interesting how often someone else’s footnote is my story.”

Getting your definitions right

Tim also talked about the importance of checking definitions, even if the meaning of a term seems obvious.

He highlighted the point by giving an example of a mistake they recently made on the More or Less podcast.

'Record' Covid cases, Trump on the death count, and ant pheromones

In an episode on the US election, they refuted a claim by Donald Trump that Covid-19 is less lethal than the flu, because sometimes over 100,000 people in the US die from seasonal flu in a year.

While the claim from Mr. Trump was indeed false, this point was made on the podcast by saying that such an event was quite rare, and that the last time this many people had died from the flu was in 1967.

In a correction on a later episode they explained that not only had they gotten the year wrong — the flu pandemic started in 1968, not 1967 — more importantly, they had misunderstood what ‘1968 flu pandemic’ meant.

The 1968 flu pandemic, it turned out, refers to a four-year period that started in 1968. And the number of deaths were spread out over this period as well, bringing US deaths per year during that period to well below 100,000.

The difference between radio and podcasting

Asked about the difference between radio and podcasting, Tim replies that he doesn’t see a big distinction.

“A lot of people emphasise the difference between radio and podcasting in a way that I don’t fully understand.”

The main difference, according to him, is in the timing. “You can’t be off by a second on radio,” he says.

He illustrates the point by sharing an anecdote from when he was asked to present a radio special on the BBC World Service. “They said: ‘If the queen dies, here’s what’s going to happen,’” before explaining that he would have to announce an interruption in the broadcast in the unlikely event that the queen would die during that specific hour.

Another difference he noted is that podcasting often involves more editing and more iterations. “Especially with American podcasts,” he said.

“The American podcasters — Radiolab, This American Life, 99% Invisible — they really know stuff that BBC radio has forgotten or is trying to relearn about audio storytelling.”

Back to basics

Audio storytelling comes with limitations — especially when telling data-driven stories. Tim doesn’t seem to mind these restraints, however.

As he explains how it was like going back to basics, he smiles:

“In a way it’s like classic old school print journalism, where you’ve got a certain number of column inches.

“And you can’t have any fancy graphs, because you can’t print in color. So you just kind of tell it in words.”

Tim Harford’s book How To Make The World Add Up (The Data Detective in the US and Canada) is out now. More Or Less is available as a podcast on the BBC Radio 4 website and you can find the Cautionary Tales podcast on Pushkin. You can read examples of audio-based data journalism in a previous post.