Give numbers context

How can you help people see 6,000?

When 6,000 power poles went down in Arkansas during a series of ice storms, Entergy Senior Communications Specialist David Lewis needed a way to make that number tangible in an executive speech.

Match game When is a jar of matches worth 6,000 words? Image by Jeff Turner

So he bought 6,000 wooden kitchen matchsticks and put them in a clear plastic container. Then he had the speaker display the matches when making his point about the broken poles.

One thing I really like about Lewis’ approach is that he synced his analogy with his subject.

The best metaphors “match” the topic. Matches conceptually go with power outages, and matchsticks are the shape of power poles.

Need to illustrate a big number? Find a way to help audience members visualize it. Big numbers don’t mean anything without a comparison.

How high is high?

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 weightlifting 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.

The power of zero

When Tim Rush, a PR pro at Snapp Norris Group, needed to explain a big number, he asked his subject matter expert to illustrate the difference between a million and a billion.

One million seconds is about 12 days, Rush was able to report. One billion seconds is about 32 years.

Illustrate the difference some zeros make.

How many steps in a Krispy Kreme?

“Food Court” — Men’s Health’s data bit on caloric crimes — recently featured this item:

The crime: 1,140 calories in two Original Glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a 20-ounce frozen latte.

The punishment: 91 … steps up the Mayan temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico. You’d have to climb up and down them 15 times while carrying a 42-pound pack to burn 1,140 calories.


Two techniques to steal from this passage:

  1. Compare big numbers (1,140 calories) to something else (marching up a temple’s steps 15 times) to help readers understand them.
  1. Bring consequences home by putting the reader in the scenario and writing directly to “you.”

And please … don’t pass the Krispy Kremes.

Give numbers context.

“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.

Don’t make your message so hard. Give readers context along with their statistics. Turn numbers into things. Ask, “What’s it like?”


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