13. Talking About Numbers 🎲
Tactics for translating numbers so you can build your case. Also, "a billion" is bigger than you think.
Happy Sunday, friends!
Our third son arrived just a day or so after my last email (everyone is doing great 🙌). I’ve spent the past weeks doing lots of rocking and changing diapers, zero email writing. I’m now back to work at Ness, which means I’m also back to writing so you can expect emails every Sunday moving forward.
Today, we’re going to talk about numbers. More specifically, how we communicate numbers to make a point. This post was heavily inspired by Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr.
I hope you have some fun in store for this weekend. I’ve been taking our two older boys (4 and 2) for “Mountain and a Meal” each Sunday. Last weekend, we did a one-mile hike in Boulder and then devoured some delicious banana nut french toast. More of the same this weekend.
Enjoy the week ahead!
1,000,000,000 is a big number…
Probably bigger than you think. Let’s look at my favorite example, pulled from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
The Earth is ~4.5 billion years old. Let’s reframe the history of the universe within the context of a single, 24-hour day:
12:00am: The Big Bang happens.
4:10pm: Our sun enters the picture; planets start forming.
4:15pm: Earth appears.
11:09pm: Vertebrates arrive!
11:37pm: Dinosaurs are here.
11:59:59pm: Finally, humans.
The entire history of humankind doesn’t even take up the final second as Bryson notes. Paints 4.5 billion in an entirely new picture.
Two more examples…
The US has ~1.5 billion pounds of excess cheese stocked away. Aggregated together, that would be about the size of the US Capitol Building. In cheese.
Finally, we can reframe Jeff Bezos’ staggering wealth in terms of stairs of all things to illustrate a point. Imagine each step in a staircase is equivalent to $100k in net worth.
After 4 steps, we’ve lost over 75% of Americans. Fewer than 1 in 10 people will ever reach the 10th step: a million dollars…After spending 9 hours a day climbing steps for 2 months, you’d have Ironman-level quads as you finally reach the wealth of Jeff Bezos.
- via Making Numbers Count
Feels different than simply saying “$165 billion,” right?
Big numbers just hit different.
At some point, a number cease to be a number at all. It just becomes “a lot.” And it’s not just really big numbers that trip us up. Decimals, fractions, percentages - when presented with a sea of digits, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.
We use numbers to illustrate a story, convince an audience, or emphasize a point.
Earn 1% cash back on every purchase everywhere. ← This card pays for itself.
Our Support team will reply back in less than two hours. ← We’re fast!
Our NPS score jumped to 70! ← Customers love us!
The tendency is to let the numbers speak for themselves. We spend ample time collecting data, running analysis, and crafting spreadsheets. Then, we put the onus on our audience to tease out what we’re really trying to say.
If the real goal is to tell a story, Heath and Starr make the argument we should spend ample time translating our numbers to make sure our point lands.
Tactics for Translating Effectively
We’re probably not turning numbers into calendar dates or steps on a staircase. We can still get creative crafting concrete, meaningful messages. Here are a few of my favorite tactics from the book illustrated using examples.
Convert one type of unit to another that’s meaningful to your audience. Or, modify the bucket size.
If you pay attention, you’ll see this everywhere. One simple example is converting calories to exercise equivalent. So, one chocolate chip cookie becomes a mile of walking. Shaky science and unnecessary guilt aside, many folks don’t have a great grasp of 400 calories, but they know what walking a mile feels like.
The key is to find a conversion that’s meaningful to your audience and use that to further illustrate the point you’re trying to make. Growing babies become “about the size of a cantaloupe.” Three ounces of meat becomes “about the size of your palm.”
Example: Get 1% cash back on every purchase everywhere.
Alternative: Like getting $100 extra in your wallet every month.
I can’t easily recall my total spend over a given month, but I do know what $100 could buy me.
Example: We had 50 reports of Bug A last month.
Alternative: 1 out of 5 new users can’t write a post after signing up.
I’m not really sure if 50 is a lot or a little. Don’t make me guess! Choosing an appropriate bucket size (1 out of 5) frames the problem in a much different light.
Draw from preexisting pools of emotion. Or, contrast against assumptions.
Stories land better and are generally more memorable when they elicit emotion. But, it can be tricky to create those feelings or emotions from scratch. Instead, we can look for what Heath and Starr refer to as “preexisting pools of emotion” - draw a comparison to something that widely conveys what you’re hoping to get across.
Example: Our support team usually replies in less than two hours.
Alternative: We’re the Usain Bolt of Support - scary fast! Keep an eye on your inbox for a reply.
Most people will identify Usain Bolt as the fastest sprinter of all time. If we’re trying to convey that our support team is fast, we can quickly draw a comparison, which hits totally different than “less than two hours.”
Example: Get 1% cash back on every purchase everywhere.
Alternative: Imagine a deep tissue massage every month…for free.
Deep tissue massages convey a certain emotion - luxury, relaxation, extravagance. If we’re trying to position “1% cash back” as a no-brainer, we can use an example everyone is familiar with and automatically get those same emotions “for free” by comparison.
Or, as a slight twist, you can build up assumptions with comparisons and then contrast against those assumptions for maximal effect.
Example: We averaged an NPS score of 70 over the past 6 months.
Alternative: Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks are brands that set the bar for customer loyalty. In terms of NPS scores, these brands are routinely over 65. Over the past 6 months, our NPS score averaged 70 - exceeding those juggernauts.
Our presentation should vary depending on who we’re speaking to and their expertise in a particular domain. Heath and Starr liken this to visiting an unfamiliar city and viewing a subway map for the first time. These maps are overly-simplistic, lacking detail, and often highly inaccurate in terms of scale. But, they serve a specific purpose - get you from Point A to Point B without getting lost, showing only the landmarks you need to know. As you become a local, you can build familiarity with all the intricacies of your new home.
We can do the same when communicating numbers pertaining to a specific field - give them some landmarks and help them orient themselves without needing to be an expert.
Example: Our first reply time averaged 4 hours last week.
Alternative: Our average first reply time was 4 hours, which means most customers get an initial reply from us within the same business day. It’s also on par with industry leaders like Warby Parker and Zappos and faster than last month (5.2 hours).
Reading the example, I’m left with questions. Is this good? How does this compare? Are we getting better or worse? The alternative gives me all the context I need even if I’m not intimately familiar with first reply times.