Four thousand (4,000) people died. Forty thousand (40,000) people died. Four hundred thousand (400,000) people died.
Obviously, there’s a whole order of magnitude — that extra zero — on these numbers as they grow, so they are very different in size.
But the reality is that most people have a really hard time comprehending the difference between these three numbers. It just feels like an overwhelmingly big number, and therefore a whole lot of suffering.
So given this reality, how can you use big numbers to communicate what’s happening with your organization and its work and do that in a way that conveys real meaning? Here are five tips to keep in mind.
Know the Point You Want the Number to Make
Why are you sharing this data in the first place? You can use the numbers to support your claim or point of view, but the number shouldn’t just stand there alone. People won’t get the meaning you get from it, because they don’t have the same level of understanding about everything else happening around that number.
Say in Words What the Number Means
Therefore, you should provide some interpretation in simple language about what that number means. Is this number a really good number, a really bad number, or something in between? This goes back to knowing the point you are trying to make because it’s helpful to assign some kind of moral value to the number (good versus bad). That makes it easier to understand and to remember.
Provide the Context for Your Interpretation
Providing the context for why the number is good or bad also helps. Has it grown, for example? Is it much bigger or smaller than you expected or than it was last year? What are the implications of that number being the size that it is? What does a number that size mean in terms of your ability to respond? Or to meet a goal? Or is it a milestone of some sort?
Make the Number Visual Where You Can
If you are trying to show a steep increase, for example, a line chart is a great way to show that exponential growth, because we will visually see that line shoot straight up.
Sometimes you can use visuals analogies. Instead of saying something was 700 yards long, you could say the length of 7 football fields. Now, this assumes your readers will have an understanding of how long one football field is. Also be careful with these explanations because they can fall into the same trap you are trying to avoid. While I might get this gist of 7 football fields, 70 or 700 is probably meaningless, because I just can’t picture that.
Watch your bad number analogies, however! (See video). And also watch for what they call “landmark numbers” which are numbers or sizes that you can gauge other numbers against.
Pick the Number That Best Makes Your Point
People tend to remember the first number they hear and compare the following numbers to that one. The more numbers you pile on, the more confused they get. So be strategic about which stats you share, and use the one that really drives home the point you are trying to make first.
Want more on understanding and talking about big numbers? Check out these articles:
How to Comprehend Incomprehensibly Large Numbers