Numbers need to be put into perspective, or they’re just sounds

numbers

At last weekend’s end-of-year celebration for my organization, a colleague got up and said a few words about one of his direct reports. As he was bestowing accolades upon her, he shared some of her accomplishments.

After he shared one data point that sounded like it could be eye popping, he wanted to emphasize his point and said: “To put that number into perspective, that is the equivalent of filling four Olympic-sized swimming pools!”  If you want your audience to be able to believe your data, numbers or statistics are as important as you believe they are, they need to have context.

Which sounds more impactful?

A. There are 28.5 million Americans without health insurance today. That’s a lot of people.

OR

B. There are 28.5 million Americans without health insurance today. That is the equivalent of no health insurance for every man, woman and child in New York City… three and a half times over! Now that’s a lot of people.

Which sounds more impactful?

A. Despite the tuition that our school charges, we still have a $1 million shortfall each year.

OR

B. Despite the tuition that our school charges, we still have a $1 million shortfall each year. That’s the equivalent of the salaries of 20 of our teachers.

Which sounds more impactful?

A. The Buffalo Bills haven’t made the playoffs in 17 years.

OR

B. My nephew was born in 2001. He doesn’t know a world without the Internet, cell phones, Facebook, Snapchat, iPhones, an African-American president, Eminem, SARS outbreaks, reality television starring Ozzy Osbourne… and he also doesn’t know a world in which the Buffalo Bills have ever played a playoff game.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point.

I’m curious, what’s been the most creative way you’ve ever put numbers in context (or perhaps the most creative way you’ve heard numbers being put in context)?

 

3 thoughts on “Numbers need to be put into perspective, or they’re just sounds

  1. Have you ever taken the Influencer training by VitalSmarts? (I used to partner with them) – they talk about vicarious experiences and they use an example of hospital annual numbers, and replace it with people telling their story through the numbers. It is very impactful (and sadly not open source) but your post just made me think about it (and sharing it with my CEO).

    • I haven’t taken the Influencer training, but it sounds very powerful! It’s so true – when numbers get big, they don’t really mean that much unless there’s a human face to them or they can somehow be put in perspective. Thanks for sharing the post, Alana!

  2. This reminds me of prospect theory–and idea from behavioral economics/decision science. One of its tenets is that people weight the emotional impact of losses higher than they do gains, and behave accordingly. A classic example is the following:

    Situation 1:
    You have $1,000 and you must pick one of the following choices:
    Choice A: You have a 50% chance of gaining $1,000, and a 50% chance of gaining $0.
    Choice B: You have a 100% chance of gaining $500.

    Situation 2:
    You have $2,000 and you must pick one of the following choices:
    Choice A: You have a 50% chance of losing $1,000, and 50% of losing $0.
    Choice B: You have a 100% chance of losing $500.

    Logically, mathematically, and probability wise, all of these answers are exactly the same–but in situation 1, people are more likely to select B, and in situation 2, they are more likely to select A. When faced with a sure loss, people become more risk-seeking and when faced with the possibility of a large gain, they become more risk-averse.

    What this suggests when it comes to people thinking about big, dangerous issues like climate change doesn’t help me sleep at night… But I think it relates to your post!

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