July 24, 2017

Take the ‘Numb’ Out of Numbers

What’s $700 billion like?

Numbers numb.

But sometimes only numbers can demonstrate the depth or breadth of an issue. Make your statistics more meaningful by comparing them to something tangible and familiar to your audience. That’s what American Public Media’s Scott Jagow asked to help his audience members get their arms around the 2008 economic relief package tab in this broadcast (fast-forward to 7:43):

“It is hard to comprehend $700 billion, so I thought maybe we’d consider what else we could buy with that money. $700 billion would pay for about 600 gallons of gas for everyone in America, or we could build high-speed train routes from coast to coast. We could buy about 300 Hubble space telescopes or take a trip to the International Space Station 35,000 times. We could send 30 million kids to college for free, at public universities, or get a laptop for every child in the world.”

A laptop for every child in the world. OK, now I see.

1. Do the legwork.

I wish I could tell you it’s easy to develop a passage like this. But finding numerical comparisons takes a lot of research.

I found that out when I was writing an annual report about charitable giving in Kansas City. I wanted to compare the $770 million total amount Kansas Citians gave to charitable organizations in one year to make that number more meaningful to the audience. To track down the comparisons, I:

  • Used the Business Journal’s Book of Lists to report that $770 million was “more than the annual revenues of Blue Cross/Blue Shield” and “more than the combined annual budgets of the metropolitan area’s three largest school districts.”
  • Called the city’s economic development authority to find the city’s average wage. After a few minutes with my calculator, I was able to report that: “To achieve that amount, some 24,000 people would have to work full time for a year at Kansas City’s average hourly wage of $15.59.”
  • Did the math. From the Book of Lists, I learned the size of the student body of one of the city’s largest school districts. I divided $770 million by the number of students. The result: in the neighborhood of $35,000 per student. Then I asked: “What would that buy that students might want?” (That helps you sync your metaphors with your topic.) My answer: some kind of car. That year, Jeeps were popular, so I …
  • Called the local Jeep dealership to find out what kind of Jeep I could get for $35,000. As a result, I was able to report that $770 million was “more than enough to buy every student in the Kansas City, Kan., School District a brand-new, 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

Doing the legwork for numerical comparisons is hard work. But it’s worth it to help readers comprehend your statistics.

2. Browse these resources for numerical comparison.

Looking for statistics to give your numbers context? These resources will help you find comparisons to make your numbers more interesting and understandable to your audience members:

  • FedStats. This website bills itself as “the gateway to statistics for over 100 federal agencies.” You’ll find statistics on everything from how much wine Americans drink (less than one-third of a gallon a year, which means I’m definitely upping the averages!) to the average income of Salt Lake Citians. Don’t miss MapStats for comprehensive data on the 50 states.
  • ePodunk.com. Statistics, demographics and other information about 25,000 U.S. communities. If I were writing about a 20-minute surgical procedure for a health system client in my hometown, for instance, I’d do a little research here. Then I’d be able to report that the surgeon could perform the procedure in less time than it takes the average Kansas Citian to drive to work.
  • Finding Data on the Internet. Journalist Robert Niles provides a list of helpful links to “reputable data on everything from public safety to campaign contributions.”

3. Make sure your comparison aids understanding.

The magic of metaphor in translating numbers is that you compare the unfamiliar to the familiar to aid understanding.

So when you compare, say, the cost of a new program to a stack of dollar bills that go to the moon and back, you have to ask yourself how familiar that is. How many of your audience members have been to the moon and back?

Don’t let statistics stultify your copy. Every time your finger reaches for the top row of the keyboard, ask yourself: “What can I compare this to?”

The result: clear, compelling copy — regardless of how complex your numbers may be.

  • Take the ‘Numb’ Out of Numbers

    Make statistics understandable and interesting

    If your readers are like most, they have, on average, below basic numeracy, or numerical literacy, according a massive international literacy study.

    So how well are they understanding your quarterly results?

    “Numbers without context, especially large ones with many zeros trailing behind, are about as intelligible as vowels without consonants,” writes Daniel Okrent, former New York Times ombudsman.

    Indeed, poorly handled, statistics can make your readers’ eyes glaze over.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on Aug. 17-18 in San FranciscoAt Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day concise-writing master class on Aug. 17-18 in San Francisco — you’ll master the art of making numbers understandable as well as interesting.

    Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Avoid statistics soup and data dumps using three simple steps.
    • Help readers understand your numbers by asking one key question every time your fingers reach for the top row of the keyboard.
    • Make numbers more emotional by turning them into people, places and things.
    • Create meaningful — not discombobulating — charts and graphs.
    • Find free tools that create attractive charts for you.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on Aug. 17-18 in San Francisco


    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Cut Through the Clutter workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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