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Wordnerdery Sue Horner’s monthly tips on words and ways to reach readers – July 2021

Issue 101 – July 2021

five ways to Help make numbers make sense

“Adding whipped cream to millions of Starbucks Corp. drinks emits 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet.” – Eric Pfanner, Bloomberg News
Photo by kevser on Unsplash.com.

Making a tiny change in your own life that would fight climate change seems impossible. That's especially so after a week that saw catastrophic flooding in Europe, wildfires in Western Canada and the U.S., a tornado north of Toronto and more.

Yet Starbucks says we can help it achieve ambitious goals for reducing its effect on the environment. How? Ditch the whipped cream.

Here’s how Eric Pfanner of Bloomberg News makes that idea clear:

“Adding whipped cream to millions of Starbucks Corp. drinks emits 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet. Overall, dairy products are the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions across the coffee giant’s operations and supply chain.”

Wow, now I get it.

If you’re going to use numbers to make a point, be sure you’re helping make those numbers make sense. Here are five ways to do it:

Numbers banner by Max Pixel via Creative Commons.

1. Do the math, and give numbers context

“Over a period of between 40 and 70 days, a lake formed, growing to more than 0.5 cubic kilometres in volume – as much water as it would take to fill the Houston Astrodome more than 400 times.” – Andrew Findlay in Canadian Geographic

Researcher Jake Hofman says perspective helps people recall unfamiliar numbers, estimate numbers they hadn’t seen before, and detect errors in “potentially manipulated numbers.” Instead of saying “Americans own almost 300 million firearms,” for example, he suggests, “To put this into perspective, 300 million firearms is about 1 firearm for every person in the United States.”

2. Make a large number understandable by comparing it to something known

“The travel and hospitality sector lost almost $4.7 trillion in 2020 – as much as if all 7.9 billion people in the world threw $595 straight into a garbage bin.” – Ann Handley

“To store a gigabyte's worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds. Today, that same gigabyte's worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” – IBM

3. Make a small number or size understandable by comparing it to something known

“Above all, atoms are tiny – very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.” – Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year.” - Kenn Kaufman, via ScienceNews

Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash.

4. Show significance without actual numbers

“[The alligator gar is] a toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse and heavier than a refrigerator.” – Tammy Webber in the Toronto Star

“A new calculation shows that if space is an ocean, we’ve barely dipped in a toe. The volume of observable space combed so far for E.T. is comparable to searching the volume of a large hot tub for evidence of fish in Earth’s oceans.” – Lisa Grossman, ScienceNews

5. Make time relatable

“[Sir Richard Branson’s] round trip, from New Mexico to the stars and back, will last about 90 minutes, or roughly what it take to drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls.” – Vinay Menon in the Toronto Star

No matter how well you’re able to help readers understand numbers, try to use as few as will get the job done. “Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs,” says Roy Peter Clark. “Readers don’t learn that way.”

What are your best tips for explaining numbers? Have you spotted a helpful analogy that explains a large or small number? Please share. And let me know if you'd like help making your own numbers make sense.

Related reading:

How do you hunt down comparisons that make a number more meaningful? Ask Ann Wylie

How to use statistics without leaving the interpretation to the reader

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