Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath & Karla Starr

Use Emotional Numbers – Surprising and Meaningful – To Move People to Think and Act Differently

  • Here we find the story of Florence Nightengale, the brilliant British nurse who convinced the generals to pay attention to sanitation in army hospitals. She did this by turning raw statistics into emotional arguments. When she talked about the numbers dying due to sanitation issues she said you might as well take them out on Salisbury Plain and shoot them. Salisbury Plain is where Stonehenge is lo
  • If you want to make an emotional point, compare your number to a number with some emotional resonance. If you want to talk about temperature, compare it to the typical temperatures in Death Valley, California. Better yet, jump a category by comparing your number to something in a different category. People often compare the state of California to other countries. For example, you can say that amount of greenhouse gases emitted by cows is more than every country except China or the US. Dwight Eisenhower gave us a good lesson by comparing the cost of military hardware to the costs of schools, hospitals, and roads.
  • You are more likely to remember a fact if it somehow connects to something already stored in your long-term memory. This makes the fact personal. This is why you need to have some idea of the kind of facts people in your audience already know.
  • We remember things we experience better than things we see. They can become stories that we can remember and repeat. People are more likely to remember what they see than what they are told, but they have an even better chance of remembering what they do. You can also convert your number to a process that unfolds over time. Think how many days you would have to do something in order to reach your desired number.
  • Like a good rock band that saves one of their best songs for an encore, you want to do the same when translating your numbers for your audience. Your encore can also offer a surprising new angle from your original effort. Surprise is powerful. There is a fine example here by Steve Jobs.

Build a Scale Model

  • Scale models can help us better grasp many things. Here we see the US budget compared to the taxes we pay in one year. The money we make in the first two weeks we work all goes to social security and so on. You can compare the life of the universe to a single year. At that scale, humans have been around for less than the last second. One second makes sense. Billions of years do not. If you are comparing numbers to each other for things like health care, divide all numbers by some power of ten like 1,000 so the numbers you end up with are not much greater than one hundred. Stick with whole numbers and avoid fractions, decimals, and percentages. Know your audience so use their language.

Chip Heath

  • Chip is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. With brother Dan he has written four best-selling books: Made to Stick, Switch, Decisive, and The Power of Moments. He has helped more than 530 start-ups refine and articulate their strategy and mission. Chip lives in Los Gatos, California. Chip and Dan’s website is HeathBrothers.Com.

Karla Starr

  • Karla has written for O, The Opera Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, and Popular Science. She has appeared on CBS Sunday Morning. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the recipient of a Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her first book, Can You Learn to be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others, was named a Fast Company Best Book of the Year. She lives in Portland, Oregon and her website is KStarr.Com.
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