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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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”:
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:
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:
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.