Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers (A Review)

By nurimroatun - March 14, 2022


If you only have 20 seconds to read this *wink as usual, don’t worry, I’ve already boiled down the insights into a sentence you can finish before your eyes blink thrice: to communicate data/numbers, give them emotions—angry number, happy number, tragic number, you name it.

 

Recently, I developed an interest in the data communication field. Actually, it’s been a while that I love communicating technical stuff to a wider audience. I have been writing about IT auditing in a (hopefully) grounded way in LinkedIn since last year and data is the newest addition to the list. To help me come with more knowledge, I decided to read the book “Make Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers” by Chip Heath and Karla Starr. Chip is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business while Karla is an award-winning journalist. What a duo!

 

Here’s the background of the topic: we live in a sea of numbers/data yet in the absence of a communication process, we don’t get anything from them. While numbers aren’t the natural language for humans, we in fact want people to not just see but also feel them. That way, we can inform something effectively or even persuade people to take action based on it. However, communicating numbers/data isn’t the easiest thing to do, even for the data people.

 

The authors suggested the approach: “translate everything, favor user-friendly numbers”. Be an understanding communicator: translate the numbers into instinctive human experience—even better in the most user-friendly manner. Always use the best—simplest, roundest, most familiar—numbers forward when we can. Decimals, fractions, percentages should be translated into a concrete something. For example, instead of saying “0,2% of people”, why don’t we say “1 out of 500 people”?

 

The other advice that the authors brought up is the usage of simple, familiar comparisons. The stats “Turkey is 783,000 square kilometers” didn’t really speak something to us compared to “Turkey is just over twice the size of California”. In Indonesia for example, we can say "the numbers of residents in Jakarta is 4 times bigger than Surabaya's, the country's second most populated city". Connecting or comparing a thing with something the audience is familiar with helps us deliver the message effectively.

 

We can’t really talk about this book without discussing its suggestion to make the numbers emotional. To touch the audience's hearts, make the information something that is directly or indirectly affecting their life. We as communicators have to find a comparison that already carries the needed emotion we want to transfer, then amplitude it. Let's take note from President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous “Chance for Peace” speech in April 1953:

 

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is 2 electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is 2 fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.”

 

Dwight translated the cost of war into something concrete and amplitude the meaning. By itself--a school, a power plant, a hospital, or a road is a budget item. Together, they are the fundamental materials for a better society, a brighter way of life—something that is everyone's aspiration. The elements which are working together like a symphony multiply the impact for the listeners.

 

The last step offered in the book is to build a scale model. Map the landscape by finding the landmarks (a.k.a. the famous facts), even better if we use the existing “maps”. Considered this example where 37° and 35° C were the landmarks of the existing map:

 

“Normal body temperature is 37° Celsius. Hypothermia begins to set in at about 35°C. When Anna arrived at the hospital, her temperature was 13.7°C. No one that cold had ever lived.”

 

The landmarks of the existing maps make us easily recognize and understand the whole situation. The distance from the number we presented with the landmarks will stimulate the audience to think deeper. Best uses the existing knowledge of the audience to make them feel the emotion of the numeral. 

 

What I love about the book:

The insights, the delivery simplicity, the real-life examples, and of course the sneaky jokes (I love books with subtle comedy)

 

What I think could be improved:

In my opinion, the idea could be conveyed in a more compact way. Thankfully, the authors put an appendix which later I realized was the summary of the book. If everyone wants to grab the insights in the limited time allocated, you can jump to the appendix part.

 

For who I recommend the book:

Hey data dan numbers people (and also everyone who wants to communicate data/numbers better), please take a look! 😊

 

Thank you for reading my review. I hope it is useful for you. See you in the next post. Stay safe, everyone :)

 

Love,

Iim 

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