Using percentages in stories is a great way to incorporate data and show a reader details outside of anecdotes. But they can be tricky to use. Here are some guidelines to follow when using percentages.
1. Consider percentages a way to demonstrate a ratio. For example, if we’re expressing the ratio of how many students said yes to a question on a survey, we’d say that XX students of XX surveyed said yes, or XX percent. You are expressing the parts of a whole. One can’t exist without the context of the other.
2. When talking about percent increase/decrease, the percentage is referring to a change. That means there’s a start point and end point that is crucial to explaining how large a percentage actually is. For example:
a. The Shorthorn’s online team has increased by 100 percent over last year.
That sounds awesome, right? Like it would be a huge number or increase. But we don’t have a starting point to go from. So, if I told you we started with two people and ended with four, a 100 percent increase, does that change your thinking?
b. The College of Nursing’s enrollment has increased 102 percent over last year, from 2,040 students to 4,136 students.
This offers more complete context – we have a start and end point, which tells us that this smallish college doubled its growth. It also allows us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions about how significant that growth is.
I applaud your work in getting numbers and statistics to back up assertions in your stories. Follow these guidelines to ensure your readers are getting the most from them:
1. If you have a percentage, tell us what it means: Give us the whole number and the part the percentage represents.
2. If you have a percent change, you must include the start and end points for reference.