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Communicating More Clearly With Numbers

22 November 2022

Janie read Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath and Karla Starr and was excited to learn new techniques to help her communicate more clearly with (and without!) numbers.

Tags: communication, janie read, the next big idea club

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intimidated by numbers. Math was my least favorite subject in school, and I’ve always felt like numbers just aren’t my strength. In my role as the Managing Director at Allison Partners, I’ve had to get much better at working with numbers to do my job but communicating clearly with them is still a place where I know I could sharpen my skills. Rachel recommended Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath and Karla Starr. This book was part of our fall Next Big Idea Club box and it seemed like a great resource to help me develop my skills and confidence.  

Right away, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most people feel intimidated by numbers. Heath and Starr shared that people tend to glaze over and stop listening whenever numbers are involved and the book is written with this in mind. In fact, the authors’ first recommendation is that whenever possible, don’t use numbers! If you don’t need them to communicate your main point, remove them altogether. If you need to include numbers, try to simplify them as much as you can and use examples that resonate with your audience.

Some of the examples talked about using numbers at a human scale or putting things in context to make them more relatable, all of which can help us be more persuasive and helpful when we’re thinking about numbers. Here’s an example to explain what I mean.

  • Example 1: If we get takeout twice a week and spend an average of $55 each time, we are spending $110 a week, $440 a month, and over $5,000 a year!
  • Example 2: If we cut down our takeout orders to once a week, in six months we will have saved enough money for a long weekend at the beach.

This example is a personal one because the decision of whether it’s worth it to order take out is a constant argument in my household. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, I think the convenience is worth the extra cost, but most of the time, I would rather cook at home. My husband (and children) often feel differently and we are always debating this issue in my house. I’ve tried to present my point of view using numbers (like the first example above), but this approach hasn’t been very effective.

After reading Making Numbers Count, I realized maybe I was focusing too much on the numbers. I needed to find a more specific example that would help me better illustrate my point of view. Our family loves going to the beach, but we don’t go very often and haven’t gone in several years. I decided to use a long weekend at the beach as an example to make my point more compelling. I think having something for us to visualize each time the takeout discussion comes up (instead of just emphasizing the numbers themselves) will make an impact and I’m hopeful that it will help my family be more agreeable to my goal of reducing our takeout consumption. (I also pulled out some photos from our last long weekend at the beach to help us remember what a great time we have when we’re able to go.)  

I know how powerful visualization can be, but I hadn’t thought about using it in conjunction with numbers and I was amazed at what a difference it made. I used an example that is top-of-mind for me, but this concept can be used to illustrate anything. The point is to find an example that resonates with your audience and use that to make your point instead of relying solely on the numbers themselves. 

I loved the examples in this book and am already thinking about other ways that I can use numbers (or remove numbers) to communicate my point of view more clearly. If you also find numbers intimidating, I think this book will help you feel more confident talking about them. On the other hand, if you love numbers and get frustrated that people don’t seem to listen when you talk about them, I think this book will help you translate your numbers into more impactful examples to better get your point across.   


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