Simplify Your Numbers Tools and Resources
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Are you putting the persuasive power of numbers to work in the right way?
Numbers don’t come naturally to most people (unless you are an accountant!!!) and to ensure that people are engaged with the numbers of your business you must make them easy to understand. This sounds obvious and yet, in so many businesses, the numbers are complicated, surrounded by jargon and impossible to translate in a meaningful way.
In business, data is a selling tool and can be used to explain most things – expansion, recruitment, additional service lines, acquisitions and mergers, benefits, pay rises… and much more. Most daily business transactions and conversations involve numbers in some form.
So, if this is the case, why do we have a tendency, when nearly everything comes down to numbers, to overcomplicate them?
Take a look at the numbers of your business and ask yourself this one question:
What am I doing in my business to ensure my numbers are as simple to understand as possible, for my team, customers and stakeholders?
STOP taking numbers at face value; stop taking numbers for granted
START working out how to make numbers small or simple, or turn them into a relevant story for your audience
The one ‘BREAKTHROUGH QUESTION’ you must ask to help yourself…
What am I doing in my business to ensure my numbers are as simple to understand as possible, for my team, customers and stakeholders?
This question is important – because getting the numbers right is crucial. Too many numbers can bore the listener or the reader, too few numbers and you don’t make your point. The secret is to find the sweet spot where your numbers are engaging your target audience and the message remains clear and concise.
In their book Making Numbers Count. Chip Heath and Karla Starr call this sweet spot the ‘Goldilocks Principle’.
Some things are too vast to comprehend, such as the distance to the moon, the volume of water in the oceans, the height of Mount Everest.
And some things are too small, like bacteria, molecules or the chance of getting tickets to the Final of The Eurovision Song contest.
You need to find some middle ground, where the explanation is ‘just right’, like a nice comfy bed or a warm bowl of porridge. Here is an example:
Mount Everest is 29,000 ft high.
If we were the height of 6 playing cards stacked flat, Everest in comparison would be about the size of a 2-story house.
If we were the height of a pencil eraser, Mount Everest would be a 7 ½ story building
The explanation in the middle puts things in perspective, as we can all imagine the 2-story house and the playing cards – we can imagine the small stack of cards being dwarfed by the enormous building.
Image from: https://afabrega.com/ - aka Mrs Fab
The numbers you need to improve...
Think about the numbers in your business, the numbers you look at, talk about, analyse, scrutinise and obsess over every day, the numbers that matter – what are they?
Sales targets and revenue
Number of customers
Profit and loss
Website page visits
Total stock/inventory stock turns
Cash flow or cash at bank
Return on Investment
Quality standards -number of rejects
Sales lead conversions
Storage costs/other costs
Fill in the above table with the help of your team, perhaps at your next team meeting or at a brainstorming session. Add/remove any that don’t apply to you and tick the ones you measure.
Now write these numbers down and consider how complicated some are. Use the measuring sticks below to see how you can simplify them and put them into a format your audience will understand.
The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ – tappers and listeners
Images from Common Craft and Container Solutions
There is a natural tendency within all of us as we become experts to experience the ‘curse of knowledge’.
What is the curse of knowledge?
Chip Heath describes it as this: Once you’ve learned something, you can’t unlearn it. More importantly, however, you automatically forget what it’s like to NOT know it.
You lose the ability to relate to the person who doesn’t get it. “Come on!!” you say to yourself. “It’s so EASY!!” You can’t empathise.
When you are an expert, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know anything about your area of expertise. We have all had appointments with doctors or solicitors, for example, when they use numbers and language that we simply don’t understand. They often don’t realise that we don’t know what they are talking about. They assume that we do.
But it isn’t just doctors or solicitors, it can apply in any field. For example, ask a football manager about gameplay and you will quickly find yourself on the receiving end of the curse of knowledge as they impart a myriad of details around tactics, positioning and the opposition, fully expecting you to keep up.
The curse of knowledge is the supervillain in any communication, and especially where numbers are involved.
When experts are asked to communicate numbers which they themselves know forwards and backwards, they can often exaggerate the clarity with which they are sharing their knowledge so that you rapidly lose interest or, on the flip side, they can under-communicate, assuming that because they are familiar with the numbers you are as well.
How often in your business have you done this?
Think about the last time you shared significant numbers. Did you leave a trail of breadcrumbs so complicated that your audience got bored and forgot to follow you, or did you forget to drop breadcrumbs so your audience simply got lost?
Tappers and Listeners
Images from Common Craft and Google/LinkedIn
As Shunryu Suzuki (Zen monk and teacher) said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
In their book Making Numbers Count, Chip Heath and Karla Starr share the ‘tappers and listeners’ experiment:
In 1990, Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment between tappers and listeners.
Tappers would pick a song from a list and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table.)
The listener’s job was to guess the song.
This experiment illustrated the Curse of Knowledge.
The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2.
When the tapper taps, they hear the song in their head.
Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — they just hear a bunch of disconnected taps.
Try this with your team and see how often the listeners get the songs right – and watch the frustration on the tappers’ faces when the listeners cannot ‘hear’ the song.
Then apply this to the numbers in your business – remembering the danger of the curse of knowledge at all times.
Psychologist Loren Soeiro Ph.D. asks us to consider these 2 examples:
Example 1 – Imagine you’re writing a speech for your boss on a challenging issue that has just arisen. She asks you to draft a speech for her so that she can present her viewpoint to an audience eager to hear what she has to say. But as you start to write the speech, you have one problem.
You are not actually sure what her opinion is on this matter, whether she agrees or disagrees, or what her feelings are.
However, you can tell from the conversation you had with her that she believes very clearly that you are fully aware of her stance on the matter. How did this happen?
Example 2 – You have asked your husband to pick up a takeaway and bottle of wine on the way home from work tonight. When you get home, you are disappointed that he has chosen your least favourite takeaway choice, and white wine, when you prefer red. How did this happen?
Both of these examples demonstrate how the curse of knowledge can affect one’s understanding.
Once we know something, we find it very difficult to understand why others don’t know this too!
The boss assumes you know her stance on the subject matter; you work for her, so why wouldn’t you, and, because it’s really important to her, she forgets that she has not actually shared her viewpoint with you.
The husband simply uses his own information based on assumptions and bias, perhaps because you have never shared with him your favourite takeaway choice and preferred wine, so his natural tendency is to think that you will like his choice, because he does.
It’s exactly the same with the numbers in your business. You might at times assume that your team will understand the numbers you are presenting to them, simply because you understand them so clearly yourself.
Numbers reveal the truth about the world, but unless you learn to translate these numbers in a simple way with your team, customers, suppliers and anyone else connected with your business, they may not be able to grasp their significance.
Make your numbers SIMPLE, UNEXPECTED, CONCRETE, CREDIBLE and EMOTIONAL, and tell them with the help of a STORY, and your audience will begin to see the value and importance of the numbers you are sharing.
Round numbers work
When you make the numbers in your business easy to understand, easier to retain and easier to repeat, you are more likely to influence your audience in your favour.
In their book Making Numbers Count, Chip Heath and Karla Starr make a compelling case for why we should always round numbers. Our brain recognises up to 4 or 5 numbers easily, but beyond that the brain has a limited memory capacity.
When you round numbers, you make them easier to retain.
“This is something engineers and physicists and doctors do all the time. They look for a quick and dirty calculation. Because what they want to do is get in the ballpark of something that has a magnitude that they understand and you can't do that when you're carrying around all these extra digits.” – Chip Heath
For example, rounding up 498,635 to 500,000 makes it much easier to digest.
The same can happen when rounding down – and this is done to great effect with pricing.
For example, £19.99 seems much cheaper than £20, and £199 than £200.
Rounding makes numbers more memorable, and when the number is £19.99, for example, we often drop the .99 – meaning in our minds the price is £19.
Use this table with your team. Change the numbers for your own and you will see that simplifying your numbers by rounding them makes them easier to understand.
Hard to understand
Rounded and simplified
A little over 3 out of 10
About 1 out of 25
483 x 9.79
500 x 10
64% of the survey said The Beatles were the best of all time
2 out of 3 people said The Beatles were the best of all time
Just under 90 kilometres
Almost 5 trillion
Measuring sticks make the difference - developing number sense
Numbers give us the ability to consider things beyond ourselves. We can use them to measure galaxies, engineer airplanes, design buildings and build entire cities, but our brains don’t naturally think in this way.
We have evolved to count small numbers – we are comfortable counting things on our fingers, even better if using one hand.
If there are 3 fish in a fishbowl, you don’t need to count them – you just know there are 3.
This is a process called ‘subitising’ – meaning we instantly recognise 1, 2 or 3 objects at a glance. But if that tank contained 8 or 9 fish you would need to count; if there were 25, you would just say it had lots.
As a business owner you can fix this problem with ‘translation’ – taking the complicated numbers and making sense of them for your audience, allowing them to visualise the numbers you are working with.
Your numbers on their own can be unclear or simply confusing. Using a relevant measuring stick or scale is the key to expressing your message.
Here are a few measuring stick examples from Chip Heath and Karla Starrs book Making Numbers Count:
Example 1 - Million and Billion
You and a friend each enter a lottery with several large prizes. But there’s a catch: if you win, you must spend £50,000 of your prize money each day until it runs out.
You win a million pounds.
Your friend wins a billion.
How long does it take each of you to spend your lottery windfall?
You can quickly work out that your prize of £1million runs out after just 20 days, as 20 days x £50,000 = £1million.
And your friend?
He or she would have a full-time job spending £50,000 a day for – wait for it – 20,000 days, or 55 years!
Example 2 - McDonald's vs Healthy Eating
For every 5 hours and 50 minutes a child spends watching McDonald’s commercials, they spend 1 minute on 5-a-Day... or
If a child sees a McDonald’s commercial every single day, it will take them almost a year to see just one commercial about 5-a-Day.
Example 3 - Suez Canal
In March 2021, the container ship, the Ever Given, hit a sandstorm that blinded the pilot and caused him to run aground, wedging the ship across the Suez Canal. This disrupted the global economy as, not only were the containers trapped on the ship, but the canal was blocked for use by other vessels. But how could one ship block an entire waterway?
If I tell you the ship is ¼ mile long, that might not mean much as it’s hard to visualise.
But imagine the Empire State Building is tipped over on its side and blocking the canal.
And when I tell you that the Ever Given is actually LONGER than the Empire State Building is tall (if you take that needle-like antenna off the top), it starts to make sense.
Image from: https://afabrega.com/ - aka Mrs Fab
Example 4 - Wash Your Hands
This example demonstrates how percentages can be difficult for the brain to perceive:
If I tell you that 28% of UK men do not always wash their hands after using the bathroom at work…you might think this is a bit disgusting, but 28% does not really sound like a lot.
But when I tell you that at least 1 in every 4 men you shake hands with at work may not have washed their hands in between using the bathroom and touching your hands, you are probably horrified!
Example 5 - Water, Water, Everywhere
This example demonstrates how large numbers and multiple sizes can be difficult to understand:
If all the world’s water was put into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, humans would only be able to drink 46 gallons of it.
This might be easier to understand if I put it like this:
If the world’s water were put into a gallon jug, humans would only be able to drink less than 20 drops of it.
You have probably seen people use elephants, jumbo jets and Olympic-sized swimming pools before – this is something called ‘big-ism’. These things wow our senses but don’t always foster understanding of the numbers being explained.
Example 6 - Cows
This example demonstrates how the perfect reference should contain a thing to which people can relate:
Livestock are responsible for 14.5% of the global greenhouse emissions. This does not sound like a lot.
But what if I told you that, if cows were a country, they would be the third-highest producer of greenhouse emissions among all nations! They produce more emissions than Saudi Arabia, Australia or India and they surpass every country in the EU combined. The top 2 are China and the USA.
The book and other resources
Making Numbers Count - The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers
Chip Heath and Karla Starr
Whether you're interested in global problems like climate change, running a business, or just grasping how few people have washed their hands between visiting the bathroom and touching you, this book will help math-lovers and math-haters alike translate the numbers that illuminate our world.
Until very recently, most languages had no words for numbers greater than five – anything from six to infinity was known as 'lots'. While the numbers in our world have become increasingly complex, our brains are stuck in the past. Yet the ability to communicate and understand numbers has never mattered more. How can we more effectively translate numbers and stats – so fundamental to the next big idea – to make data come to life?
Drawing on years of research into making ideas stick, Chip Heath and Karla Starr outline six critical principles that will give anyone the tools to communicate numbers with more transparency and meaning. Using concepts such as simplicity, concreteness and familiarity, they show us how to transform hard numbers into their most engaging form, allowing us to bring more data, more naturally, into decisions in our schools, our workplaces and our society.
What people are saying about this book:
"This terrific book is bursting with practical insights and memorable stories on every page. It's as relevant to product designers and meeting planners as it is to teachers and parents. I've already put many of its novel suggestions to work. Don't miss it."- Eric Ries, author of bestselling author of The Lean Startup, The Startup Way
"Flat-out amazing."- Jake Knapp, New York Times bestselling author of Sprint
"I read this cover to cover and learned something new on each page. Beautifully written, brilliantly researched--I'm recommending it to everyone I know!" - Angela Duckworth, New York Times-bestselling author of Grit
The Curse of Knowledge - Why Smart Professionals Struggle to Explain Their Work
This video really helps explains the ‘curse of knowledge’ and why experts can get it so wrong:
Why do professionals with technical expertise frequently fail to influence others to take action, even when armed with sound data and insights?
Miro Kazakoff is a Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at MIT Sloan, where he focuses on how individuals use data to persuade others. In his recorded webinar, Kazakoff will discuss some of the tools and techniques you can use to be a more effective communicator within your organization.
• How the human brain processes new information
• Why experts are poorer communicators in their own domain than non-experts
• What all professionals can do to be more effective
Think Fast, Talk Smart, the Podcast is hosted by Matt Abrahams, who teaches Strategic Communication at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this episode he talks to Chip Heath, co-author of Making Numbers Count.
Chip Heath: “We have to make data emotional because emotions are what drive us to act.”
Heath talks about ways that data and statistics can be used to illuminate – or obscure – our message.
“A lot of people in the world don’t understand numbers like the numbers people,” he says. “And there are a lot of untranslated numbers that float around in organisations and in society.” Heath suggests that we think about numbers as a foreign language we need to ‘translate’ for our audience: “If we don’t translate numbers into something that’s more tangible, we’re going to sacrifice in a big way.”
The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers So People Listen is a great interview with Chip Heath and is part of the Great Leadership series with Jacob Morgan.
All too frequently, numbers run together in an abstract jumble. But according to Chip Heath, best-selling author and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, there are tools for making numbers stick. There is a cognitive, even emotional, component to understanding how numbers equate. Watch this video and learn how to make numbers concrete, how framing numbers can render them comprehensible and why we should always round numbers or stats.
How to Communicate Numbers, hosted by the Blurred Summits team, is a great interview with Karla Starr, an award-winning science/business journalist and co-author of Making Numbers Count.
She and Abdul discuss the importance of making numbers easy to understand, how to communicate complex numbers and much more!
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