How tiny is tiny? How huge is huge?
How small is small? One-third the size of a ladybug? The size of a sprinkle on an ice cream cone?
Analogy, metaphor, simile and other comparisons can help your readers “see” the size and scale you’re communicating.
1. Help readers see.
A J-school friend of mine, The Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker, used that approach in his Pulitzer Prize-winning explanatory series on aneurysms:
OK, now I see it.
2. Ask, “What’s it like?”
In A Perfect Red, Amy Butler Greenfield describes her topic, cochineal, thus:
When you use adjectives like “voracious” and “quite small,” make sure your reader can see what that looks like. How voracious is “voracious”? “Quite small” says one thing; “one-third the size of a ladybug” says something entirely different.
3. Ask, “How big is big?”
In the movie “Armageddon,” the president’s staff is briefing the leader of the free world about the giant asteroid that’s hurling toward earth.
Just how big is it? the president asks.
260,000 square miles and change, the team answers.
Finally, Billy Bob Thornton’s character steps in: “It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President,” he says.
Which means more: “261,797 square miles”? Or “the size of Texas”?
Turn numbers into things for easier understanding.
4. Add a zero.
What’s the difference between 10 and 10 billion?
Modern designers Charles and Ray Eames answered that question by zooming from a picnicker in a Chicago park out to the galaxies above him and back into the microscopic world inside his hand.
5. Ask, “How small is small?”
When the late, great Kansas City Star columnist C.W. Gusewelle wanted to help readers understand the fragility of monarch butterflies as they migrate south for the winter, he wrote:
I don’t know whether I appreciate the analogy more or the four decimal points of precision!
Both make the point: It’s not enough just to communicate the numbers. You also need to help readers see them.
6. Put it in their pocket.
In Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston’s amazing book about smallpox, the author uses comparison to help readers see size and scale, too:
How small is small? The size of jimmy on an ice-cream cone.
Need to convey size and scale? Show your reader how small or large your number is through comparison.
Source: Kevin Helliker and Thomas M. Burton, “The Battle of the Bulge: Aneurysm Tests Could Save A Lot of Lives, if Performed,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 2003