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Your Number's Up

I like words, words can do what you want them to do; they can swirl around forming pictures in the sky, they can transmit emotion, they can bring people together, they can start arguments, they can do anything.

Words are the modelling clay of meaning...

Numbers are not.

Numbers are cold and hard and they mean one thing, 4 will always be 4, but fore, for, and four are very different.

Or at least that's how modern culture looks at numbers, as fixed moments in our minds.

The problem is that numbers have been leading a double life, they have been moonlighting as escorts who are ready to let you do terrible, terrible, dirty things to them.

Take the % symbol. It's used as a fairground mirror to make things look bigger or smaller or just different... "100% increase in users!" you trumpet... that means you now have 2 users rather than 1...




When you present numbers what should you remember?

1) Vague percentages mean nothing unless you put them into context.Tell me the starting point for any rise or fall, don't just get excited by the big percentage. That said....

2) Avoid Percentages...They may be the icing on your cake, or the way that you're able to show a good thing (or a bad) but my brain likes fractions. I can understand a quarter or "1 in four" better than 25%.

3) Remember your audience.Are you presenting annual figures to a department or are you talking to a group of potential clients? The annual figures need to be in there for the report but do you need so many numbers talking to potential clients? Probably not, they want the business benefits and to see if you're the type of person they can do business with.

4) Very big and very small are incomprehensible.If you're talking billions, trillions or on the other end of the scale, nanos or picos, my brain goes mushy.That's why (in the UK) we like the Wales scale; as in "an area 3 times the size of Wales*" or "the height of 12 Nelson's Columns". We like comparisons with solid things. I don't know how big Wales is, but I can picture it on a map and if it's 3 times bigger then that must be very big... don't forget that even the great writer Dorothy Parker compared length, she said "If all the girls who attended the Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised"

5) Headline numbers get remembered the subheadings don't. Use numbers sparingly.

The main thing is that you don't forget the reason for your presentation which is the passing on of UNDERSTANDABLE information. If the audience just get the information without understanding it, you'll need a 100% rewrite.

*62,283 Square Kilometres if you must know.

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