The need for skill at talking about numbers keeps increasing as financial institutions expand their use of content marketing, video and other techniques to punch through to consumers and other audiences.
Alas, while banking is rich in often abstract numbers, the skill to turn raw numbers into understandable concepts isn’t common. There’s a big difference between talking to a roomful of bankers about performance metrics and to a group of consumers about saving enough for retirement.
Talking about numbers to a lay audience both intelligently and intelligibly is the reverse image of the skills it takes to work out the “word problems” so many of us dreaded back in school. Those assignments demanded that students extract strictly the information that could be used to calculate the required answer. By contrast, marketers find themselves with piles of numbers that have to be turned into prose, clear examples and perhaps infographics or straightforward, intelligible charts.
If this was easy, everyone would be doing it already. Because it’s not, marketers should have a look at Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, by Chip Heath and Karla Starr.
Focusing strictly on prose, the authors present many principles and dozens of side-by-side examples of ways to discuss numbers engagingly.
The challenge is that while most people have a decent grasp of calculating with numbers, understanding numbers in a meaningful way past our ten fingers is harder for many humans than it sounds.
“The higher numbers get, the less sensitive we get to them, a phenomenon psychologists have labeled ‘psychophysical numbing’,” the authors write. However, with work, the authors promise that no one who communicates about numbers has to settle for anesthetizing their audience.
“Every gnarly number has something — an analogy, a comparison, another dimension — that will allow us to translate it into something we can remember, use, and discuss with others.”
— Making Numbers Count
One of the simplest examples the book presents of how to make numbers meaningful concerns the national debt.
Before: “The U.S. national debt is $27 trillion.”
After: “The U.S. national debt is $27 trillion — $82,000 per citizen.”
That example doesn’t make the debt any more palatable, but it makes it a good deal more personal and comprehensible.
Writing Engagingly About Numbers May Make Your Head Hurt
A warning to the reader: Once you decide you are not going to just regurgitate the figures given you into your own copy, accept that applying the authors’ many techniques will be hard work. A fascinating discovery in reading the book is that it can frequently take many more words to make a point clearly when numbers are involved. Here are two examples from the book — and the “afters” here are much shorter than some others the authors include.
This one is drawn from a major news story about the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021:
Before: “The container ship Ever Given is almost a quarter-mile long.”
After: “Imagine the Empire State Building tipped over on its side and blocking the canal. The container ship Ever Given is actually longer than the Empire State Building if you take off the tiny, needle-like antenna at the very top of the building.”
This illustrates the authors’ concept of “concreteness”. Relate numbers in terms of things people understand through experience or familiarity.
Another example — relating to drinking water — takes off from the way some writers relate things to the size of an Olympic pool — but how many people have actually swum in one?
Before: “If the world’s water were put into an Olympic-size pool, humans would only be able to drink 46 gallons of it — roughly the amount that can be contained in a standard bathtub.”
After: “If the world’s water were put into a gallon jug, humans would only be able to drink less than 20 drops of it.”
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Examples of How Skill with Number Engagement Can Move Products and Ideas
In many sections the authors draw on historical examples to show how critically sweating numerical prose can advance a cause, a key practice or a product. It’s hard to think of any other single book where you will read stories about nursing advocate Florence Nightingale, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, Apple icon Steve Jobs, and President Ronald Reagan.
Florence Nightingale, who is normally thought of as a pioneer in nursing and battlefield medicine, was also a skilled statistician. Her use of medical statistics translated into strong prose that helped bring about modern concepts of sanitary practice. One example:
Before: “We had 600 deaths per 1,000 troops.”
After: “We had, in the first seven months of the Crimean campaign… from disease alone, a rate of mortality which exceeds that of the Great Plague of London.”
Nightingale was referring to the bubonic plague, which at the time still resonated in England’s capital. This is an illustration of using a “comparative.”
Grace Hopper was a Navy computer expert who, among other things, invented the software term “bug,” when an insect was preventing an old-fashioned computer part from operating. She trained numerous Navy engineering officers in critical skills. One was the importance of efficient programming:
Before: “We need to save every ‘microsecond,’ which is one-millionth of a second.”
After: “This piece of wire is the distance your signal could have traveled in the microsecond you wasted. It stretches 984 feet, about as long as three football fields.” [Hopper actually brought wire cut to that length to classes.]
A story about Jobs is used to illustrate a key point in the chapter “Make People Pay Attention by Crystallizing a Pattern, Then Breaking It.” In a presentation, Jobs spoke of his competitor, Sony and its TZ series of thin notebook computers, as the epitome. Then he explained how much skinnier Apple’s then-new MacBook Air was.
Before: “The dimensions of the TZ range from 1.2 inches to 0.8 inches; we beat that on average by half an inch.”
After: “The thickest part of the MacBook Air is still thinner than the thinnest part of the TZ.”
Reagan, called the “Great Communicator” by some, comes in for criticism by the authors for a famous remark about the national debt: “If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.”
Helpful? “When was the last time you scrutinized a price by stacking dollar bills?” scoff the authors.
How Financial Marketers Can Use This Book
This relatively short book — 142 pages plus a wealth of endnotes — is full of concepts, principles and examples. Marketers would be well advised to read it through once, to get the overall drift and then work through each section by itself, using it to run exercises in turning numbers into insights.
This would ideally be done with colleagues. The book’s ideas were developed and refined over years in an MBA course Chip Heath teaches on how to make ideas stick. The seeds of the book began when Heath’s original idea to avoid numbers completely was attacked by a student:
“I’m an investment banker. All of my ideas involve numbers. I can’t escape them.”
What followed was years of Heath’s students working together on practical communication of numbers, battling out ideas and approaches. That would be the way to master this skill.