January 17, 2018

Turn numbers into things

When writing with statistics, ask ‘What’s it like?’

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:

Turn numbers into things

But what does it mean? Add context to make numbers meaningful. Image by Maite Tiscar

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.

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Colorful numbers

Startling statistics make compelling leads

Research shows … that nearly half of commuters text and drive … that one in three patients enters the hospital malnourished … and that 66% of women won’t kiss men with moustaches.

Startling statistics make compelling leads

By the numbers Surprise readers with startling statistics. Image by Stephen Coles

Statistics like these grab attention and make your point.

But you don’t have to tell PRSA’s Silver Anvil Award winners. They use statistics to sell their ideas:

From the sad …

AT&T uses startling stats in its release “Nearly Half of Commuters Admit to Texting While Driving”:

Nearly half of commuters self-reported texting while driving in a recent poll, and 43% of those who did called it a “habit.”

Commuters are texting and driving even more than teens — 49%, compared to 43%.

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Make size and scale visual

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?

Make size and scale visual

Smaller than a ladybug? Help readers ‘see’ size through metaphor and simile. Image by Häli Joonas

Analogy, metaphor, simile and other comparisons can help your readers literally “see” the size and scale you’re communicating.

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:

A radiologist scrutinizing film for gall stones can’t help noticing if an aorta, typically the diameter of a garden hose, measures as large as a soda can.”

OK, now I get it.… Read the full article

Match game

How can you help people see 6,000?

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

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.… Read the full article

Make numbers count

Tools for numerical comparisons

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:

Make numbers count

Numbers game Use these tools to discover comparisons to make statistics understandable. Image by Mike Hales


You’ll find raw data, tools and geodata covering topics from agriculture to wholesale trade and sources ranging from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to the White House.… Read the full article

Vital statistics

Numbers bring concreteness and color to your copy

How big is big? How fast is fast?

Vital statistics

Paint by numbers Statistics help make your copy more colorful. Image by Andy Maguire

Statistics help you quantify and specify your message.

Here are three examples, from stories I recently edited for a client:

1. How big is big?

If your point is “big,” then make that point with numbers and details. (By the way, Wikipedia is a great place to get statistical details about a city.)

Research time: 15 minutes.… Read the full article

Statistical indexes

Add a ‘Harper’s Index’-style piece

One easy way to add graphic stories to your publication is through a “Harper’s Index”-style statistical list.

All you do is:

  • Gather stats from your organization or industry
  • List them — or hand them over to your designer for a simple layout
  • You can even pull the stats from stories within your publication and use them to promote content

Just make a list

“Harper’s Index” is simple — and delightful.… Read the full article

Numbers count

Numerals in headlines quantify value, draw readers

Next time you hit the Safeway, take a look at the magazines displayed at the checkout counter. Chances are, you’ll find that they’re packed with numerals.

Numbers count - Add numbers in headlines

By the numbers Headlines with numerals perform better in email, social media, magazines and on the web. Image by Clyde Robinson

There’s a good reason for that: Headlines with numerals, like Top 10, promise quantifiable value. And that draws readers.… Read the full article

Start your story with a statistics lead

Grab reader attention by writing with numbers

Stumped for a story starter? Try a statistics lead. Yes, writing with numbers can be tough. A bunch of boring figures can make readers’ eyes glaze over wherever you place them.

Start your story with a statistics lead

Strength in numbers A startling statistics lead can surprise or challenge your readers. Image by qthomasbower

But startling statistics — underline the word “startling” — can make a great lead. When writing your next lead, surprise and delight readers with a statistics lead like these, from two intranet stories:

Show size and scope.

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