Communication tips & more

Take the ‘numb’ out of numbers

Bringing numbers to life: Photo of a yellow car with surf boards, bikes, a ball, and luggage parked in front of ocean

How long would it take to drive to the sun?

If you’re putting together EOFY budgets, targets and reports, I have good and bad news.

The good news:

Adding numbers (statistics, results, proof) to your messages is excellent. As copywriters say, ‘specifics sell.’

The bad news:

Unless you bring your numbers to life, they’re about as useful as a tissue to a sneezy, spacewalking astronaut.

They’re not called NUMBers for nothing; they can send people to sleep.

Our brains didn’t evolve to handle numbers well. Even today, some primitive cultures have only three concepts for numbers: ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’.

So if you wanted to turn someone on to the vast distances in our solar system, saying ‘The Sun is about 150 million km away’ just won’t cut it. It’s the same as ‘… a galaxy far, far away.’

But this will give them a much better grasp:

If you could drive your car at highway speeds (100km/hr) into space, it would take:
* 5.5 months to get to the moon, and
* 170 years (two lifetimes) to get to the sun!

Suddenly, ‘150 million km’ means a lot more, doesn’t it?

GFC bailouts

During the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), a BBC interviewer found that the biggest financial number most British people could understand was the size of their own mortgage.

They couldn’t appreciate the enormous amounts of money the British Government was pouring in to bail out stressed banks. A billion here, a trillion there; I dunno, guv’nor.

But at Magneto, we’ll save you.

Keep two things in mind: COMPARISONS and VISUALS.


Is a $10,000 suit expensive? How do you know? Because you instantly compared it to other suits you’ve seen.

What about a $1000 computerised module to trigger fireworks? Is that a bargain or a rip-off? You probably have no idea. You’d have to ask Mr Google.

Similarly, when you present a number to your board, use comparisons to give them a sense of size. For example:

Comparisons in TIME:
‘Our profit was X, but 12 months ago it was Y.’

Comparisons in PLACE:
‘In Australia we do X, but in America they do Y.’
‘In our business we do X, but our competitor does Y.’


Try turning the page of a magazine and not looking at the pictures on the next page. Text is easy to ignore, but not pictures — especially if they’re large and colourful.

We’re an incredibly visual species. About 30 percent of your brain’s cortex is devoted to vision, while only 8 percent handles touch, and just 3 percent hearing.

Bringing numbers to life: Percentage of your brain's cortex devoted to each sense: Vision 30%; Touch 8%; Hearing 3%

So use relevant pictures whenever possible. For example:

Mental pictures:
‘The A380’s wingspan is almost the length of a football field.’

Use photos, drawings, graphs, charts and diagrams to bring your subject to life.

Try for easy ways to make attractive graphics.

PRO TIP: When you use a picture, add a key point in the caption underneath. Research shows that captions are a highly read element on the page.

So when you next write a number, see if you can make it more interesting than a road trip to the Sun!

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