Communicating numbers and making them count
Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers
By Chip Heath & Karla Starr
You may or may not be a “numbers person,” and I am willing to bet you have an opinion on which category you fit into. Accountants, analysts, mathematicians, and financial advisors benefit from understanding numbers and enjoy working with digits and equations, at least on some level. For others, the thought of calculating numbers and looking at spreadsheets is enough to find a new job.
This book will probably benefit you regardless of your affinity for numbers. Making Numbers Count is a recently published book that can help number-loving professionals better communicate their passions to others. It can also help the not-so-fond-of-numbers crowd make some sense of the numbers they have to use to get the job done. Chip Heath is a bestselling co-author that has teamed up with Karla Starr, a science writer, to combine art and science in the field of communicating numbers.
Making Numbers Count starts with ancient history and our understanding of a language to explain numbers. For much of history, anything more than five or six was just considered “lots.” Now we regularly discuss specific numbers that go up into the trillions and down to the third or fourth decimal. It doesn’t matter if the number is tiny or huge, Heath and Starr give examples and reasoning on how to better communicate with numbers.
The book centers around the idea that information is lost when numbers don’t translate into human experience. Simply put, if you do the work to find the right number in your business but fail to communicate it effectively, it doesn’t matter what the number is. Your audience needs to take hold of the number, whatever it represents, and truly understand it. The authors go on to show you how to make numbers count.
There are four sections with 19 chapters of content. The first section tells us to “translate everything and favor user-friendly numbers.” One of the best examples is in the chapter titled “Avoid Numbers: Perfect Translations Don’t Need Numbers.” In this case, the authors use an example explaining the amount of water on the earth: “97.5% of the world’s water is salinated…only .025% of the water on the globe is drinkable by humans.” This statistic is staggering, but can you imagine what .025% looks like? Instead, the translation is memorable because it puts the amount of water into a perspective that we can easily understand. Imagine a gallon jug filled with water, that’s the saltwater. Now there are three ice cubes next to the gallon, they represent the fresh water. Here’s the kicker: we only have access to the drips of water melting off the ice cubes. Ice cubes, drops of water, and a gallon jug are all more identifiable than a global-sized percentage.
In the next section, Making Numbers Count tells us to use numbers that are “familiar, concrete, and human scale.” For most of us, the metric system is unfamiliar. We don’t regularly talk in terms of centimeters, especially about 3D objects. It’s not easy to imagine something that is 3cm, but as Heath and Starr point out, we can imagine the size of a grape. A grape is a concrete object.
The third section examines the use of “emotional numbers.” Familiar objects are always received and understood better, so the book recommends personalizing numbers whenever possible. We know ourselves best and have been thinking about ourselves for our entire life, so why not use that to your advantage in communicating numbers? Rather than saying that “20% of people experience mental illness,” you could say “Think about you and your 4 closest friends. Now realize that one of you will be diagnosed with a mental illness.” The personal touch makes a much greater impact than 20%.
Finally, the last section of the book encourages us to “build a scale model.” Scaling numbers to fit maps or sizes that we recognize is hugely helpful. Heath and Starr even provide an example using the popular game Settlers of Catan to talk about expansion.
There is legitimate fun in reading this book in addition to learning how to communicate numbers. Most of the examples in the book have a before-and-after box that shows the original number and then the easy-to-understand version. The examples are engaging and interesting. I’ll probably never need to know how big Ireland is or how many calories a hummingbird burns in a day, but the statistics and stories are enjoyable to read and give you good trivia to share with your friends and colleagues.
Numbers are not always engaging, but if you are in business, you probably need to communicate numbers so your customers, bosses, investors, and peers will understand and take the action you want them to take. Making Numbers Count is a fun and easy book to help you be more effective in communicating numbers.
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About Phil Klutts
Phil is an Edmond native and has managed to keep his wife here instead of traveling the world, which they both enjoy. They have two boys who love the outdoors, adventures, and learning new things. Phil is a problem-solver at heart and enjoys connecting people to the resources they need.
In addition to being the co-owner of Edmond Business, Phil founded the CK Group LLC after working for large and small businesses in the Energy, Construction, and Fitness industries. He focuses on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs improve their systems and processes. CK Group LLC's mission is to eliminate chaos and create clarity for small business by connecting vision, strategy, and implementation.