Clarify data by giving it context
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:
Consulting the literature, I find that the average weight of an adult monarch may be expressed as 0.0176 of an ounce, about the same as a good-sized snowflake.
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.
The best way to do that: Turn numbers into things. In other words, clarify data by giving it context.
1. Ask, is that a little or a lot?
One way to help readers see big numbers is to compare them to something else. That comparison should help readers answer their question, “Is that a little or a lot?”
When Kevin Helliker and Thomas Burton wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning series about aneurysms in the aortic artery for The Wall Street Journal, they needed to explain how weight lifting affected blood pressure. They wrote:
Heavy-weight lifting can spike blood pressure to dangerous heights. In maximum-effort lifting, which pits a participant against the most weight he can hoist one time, studies have shown that blood pressure rises to as high as 370/360 from a resting rate of 130/80. Conventional blood-pressure monitors can’t even measure levels above 300.
“At that level, nobody would be surprised if you had a stroke,” says Franz Messerli, a hypertension specialist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans.
OK, that’s a lot.
When former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright wrote that the annual budget for the United Nations’ “core functions” was $1.25 billion, she gave it this context:
[That’s] … roughly what the Pentagon spends every 32 hours. … The entire U.N. system, composed of the secretariat and 29 other organizations, employs a little more than 50,000 people, just 2,000 more than work for the city of Stockholm. Total annual expenditures by all U.N. funds, programs and specialized agencies equal about one-fourth the municipal budget of New York City.
OK, that’s a little.
When Planet Money’s Adam Davidson and Alex Bloomberg explained the 2008 financial crisis in The Giant Pool of Money, they wrote:
“Let’s put $70 trillion in perspective. Do this: Think about all the money that people spend everywhere in the world. Everything you bought in the last year, all of it. Then add everything Bill Gates bought. And all the rice sold in China and that fleet of planes Boeing just sold to South Korea. All the money spent and earned in every country on earth in a year: That is LESS than 70 trillion, less than this global pool of money.”
That’s a lot. A whole lot.
“Numbers, when they’re large enough, simply blow our mental fuses. People often find anything with an ‘-illion’ on the end incomprehensible,” write Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, authors, The Numbers Game.”
The solution? Compare it to something else to give readers context.
2. Help readers see.
Every time you feel your fingers reaching for the top row of the keyboard, ask, “What’s it like?”
When Christy Rippel needed to communicate how the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s radiology department had reduced sedation rates in children for imaging exams, the communicator wrote:
Last year, you could have filled an auditorium with the 333 children sedated for imaging exams. One year later, radiology had reduced an auditorium to a classroom — only 34 children were put under for an imaging test.
It’s hard to see 333 people, easier to see an auditorium full of them.
“Information,” writes Diane West, president and co-founder of 2Connect, “is absorbed in direct proportion to its vividness.”
3. Break numbers down.
Help readers relate to numbers by giving them a human scale. In a letter to Vanity Fair, Andrew J. Carra writes in response to “The $3 Trillion War”:
I wonder how many people can fathom just how much $3 trillion really is. … If I were to give someone $3 trillion and tell him that he had to spend $100 million each and every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and then told him not to come back to me until he had spent every last penny, said person would not return for 82 years.
When Dr. Jose Quintans talks about microbes to a lay audience, the director of Medical Scientist Training at the University of Chicago uses this technique. He brings numbers home — literally — to his audience members.
First, he tells them that 2 or 3 pounds of their body weight is made up of bugs. Then he explains that they have 10 times more microbes in their body than cells.
“Technically speaking,” he says, “you are 90 percent bacteria.”
4. Show, don’t tell.
Don’t let numerical comparisons get in the way of a good story, writes James McGrath Morris in Writer’s Digest:
If, for instance, your subject gets a raise at work and you want to help the reader understand its value, do so through purchases and actions rather than translating the raise to 21st century monetary values. …
For example, when the subject of my last biography was given a newspaper’s editing post at the unheard-of salary of $100 a week, I provided readers with the following comparison: “With cocktails selling for a dime, and a porterhouse-steak dinner, complete with French fries and a saucer of piccalilli, for 50 cents, his was a handsome take.” Telling details such as these are also the gems readers will remember.
Try it. They’ll like it.
5. Show size and scale.
How small are smallpox particles? Richard Preston, author of Demon In the Freezer, explains:
Variola particles are built to survive in the air. They are rounded-off rectangles that have a knobby, patterned surface — a gnarly hand-grenade look. Some experts call the particles bricks. The whole brick is made of a hundred different proteins, assembled and interlocked in a three-dimensional puzzle.
Pox bricks are the largest viruses. If a smallpox brick were the size of a real brick, then a cold-virus particle would be a blueberry on the brick. But smallpox particles are still extremely small; about three million smallpox bricks laid down in rows would pave the period at the end of this sentence.
Ahhhh … Learning is a pleasure when the explanation is so delightful.
Turn numbers into things.
“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.
That’s true. But when you give them context, they suddenly make sense.