Standard Deviation

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I'll be honest. Standard deviation is a more difficult concept than the others we've covered. And unless you are writing for a specialized, professional audience, you'll probably never use the words "standard deviation" in a story. But that doesn't mean you should ignore this concept.

The standard deviation is kind of the "mean of the mean," and often can help you find the story behind the data. To understand this concept, it can help to learn about what statisticians call normal distribution of data.

A normal distribution of data means that most of the examples in a set of data are close to the "average," while relatively few examples tend to one extreme or the other.

Let's say you are writing a story about nutrition. You need to look at people's typical daily calorie consumption. Like most data, the numbers for people's typical consumption probably will turn out to be normally distributed. That is, for most people, their consumption will be close to the mean, while fewer people eat a lot more or a lot less than the mean.

When you think about it, that's just common sense. Not that many people are getting by on a single serving of kelp and rice. Or on eight meals of steak and milkshakes. Most people lie somewhere in between.

If you looked at normally distributed data on a graph, it would look something like this:

The x-axis (the horizontal one) is the value in question... calories consumed, dollars earned or crimes committed, for example. And the y-axis (the vertical one) is the number of datapoints for each value on the x-axis... in other words, the number of people who eat x calories, the number of households that earn x dollars, or the number of cities with x crimes committed.

Now, not all sets of data will have graphs that look this perfect. Some will have relatively flat curves, others will be pretty steep. Sometimes the mean will lean a little bit to one side or the other. But all normally distributed data will have something like this...
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