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Take the “Numb” Out of Numbers

By Ann Wylie

(June 16, 2009) Fundraisers work with numbers every day, and often are faced with the task of turning cold numbers into a lively call to action for donors. Learn how to help your audience understand new, difficult or complicated information through the power of metaphor.

This article, written by for-profit communications coach Ann Wylie (www.wyliecomm.com), was reprinted with permission.

Numbers numb.

But sometimes only numbers can demonstrate the depth or breadth of an issue. Make your statistics more meaningful by comparing them to something tangible and familiar to your audience. That's what P.J. O'Rourke did in this passage about bailing out the S&Ls for Rolling Stone:

The United States government is about to spend $150 billion to preserve the nation's savings and loans. …

"How much is $150 billion?" a reader might reasonably ask at this point. O'Rourke continues:

…That's enough to send every member of our country's high-school class of 1989 to Harvard for four years. Enough to buy a fair-sized commercial building for each of America's homeless people. Enough to get every welfare mother a new mobile home in your suburb. And it will cost every man, woman and child in America $650.

OK — now I understand what $150 billion is like.

So how does a writer come up with brilliant passages like O'Rourke's?

1. Do the legwork.

I wish I could tell you it's easy to develop a passage like this. But finding numerical comparisons takes a lot of research.

I found that out when I was writing an annual report about charitable giving in Kansas City. I wanted to compare the $770 million total amount Kansas Citians gave to charitable organizations in one year to make that number more meaningful to the audience. To track down the comparisons, I:

  • Used the Business Journal's Book of Lists to report that $770 million was "more than the annual revenues of Blue Cross/Blue Shield" and "more than the combined annual budgets of the metropolitan area's three largest school districts."
  • Called the city's economic development authority to find the city's average wage. After a few minutes with my calculator, I was able to report that: "To achieve that amount, some 24,000 people would have to work full time for a year at Kansas City's average hourly wage of $15.59."
  • Did the math. From the Book of Lists, I learned the size of the student body of one of the city's largest school districts. I divided $770 million by the number of students. The result: in the neighborhood of $35,000 per student. Then I asked: "What would that buy that students might want?" (That helps you sync your metaphors with your topic.) My answer: some kind of car. That year, Jeeps were popular, so I …
  • Called the local Jeep dealership to find out what kind of Jeep I could get for $35,000. As a result, I was able to report that $770 million was "more than enough to buy every student in the Kansas City, Kan., School District a brand-new, 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee."

Doing the legwork for numerical comparisons is hard work. But it's worth it to help readers comprehend your statistics.

2. Browse these resources for numerical comparison.

Looking for statistics to give your numbers context? These resources will help you find comparisons to make your numbers more interesting and understandable to your audience members:

  • FedStats. This Website bills itself as "the gateway to statistics for over 100 federal agencies." You'll find statistics on everything from how much wine Americans drink (less than one-third of a gallon a year, which means I'm definitely upping the averages!) to the average income of Salt Lake Citians. Don't miss MapStats for comprehensive data on the 50 states.
  • ePodunk.com. Statistics, demographics and other information about 25,000 U.S. communities. If I were writing about a 20-minute surgical procedure for a health system client in my hometown, for instance, I'd do a little research here. Then I'd be able to report that the surgeon could perform the procedure in less time than it takes the average Kansas Citian to drive to work.
  • Finding Data on the Internet. Journalist Robert Niles provides a list of helpful links to "reputable data on everything from public safety to campaign contributions."

3. Make sure your comparison aids understanding.

The magic of metaphor in translating numbers is that you compare the unfamiliar to the familiar to aid understanding.

So when you compare, say, the cost of a new program to a stack of dollar bills that go to the moon and back, you have to ask yourself how familiar that is. How many of your audience members have been to the moon and back?

Don't let statistics stultify your copy. Every time your finger reaches for the top row of the keyboard, ask yourself: "What can I compare this to?"

The result: clear, compelling copy—regardless of how complex your numbers may be.

Take the numb out of numbers

Want to learn more about how to make statistics more interesting and understandable? Join Ann Wylie at "Writing That Sells," her intensive writing workshop (http://www.wyliecomm.com/master_class/index.shtml) on Sept. 22 and 23 in Overland Park, Kan. 

About the author

Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications Inc., works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Ann is the creator of RevUpReadership.com, a toolbox for writers. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com. Get a FREE subscription to Ann’s e-zine at http://www.wyliecomm.com/.  

Copyright © 2004 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.



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