Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Numbers.

1.5 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. There have been 118,000 deaths from COVID-19 in America. Some are proposing cutting the New York Police Department’s budget from $6 billion to $5 billion. These are all headlines rolled out by top-tier media outlets within the last week. These numbers convey a sense of scale and importance, shocking the reader, but the articles that follow often lack the appropriate context and necessary information. There are three easy-to-implement writing strategies when discussing numbers that can help communicators better connect with their audiences and create content that has true staying power. 

Relate the Figure to a Commonly Understood Number

America is a big country, so most media coverage is going to have to contend with enormous figures that are rarely applicable to daily life. For example, over the last few months, most major outlets have reported on the skyrocketing unemployment figures—with the most recent wave of headlines discussing America’s 45.7 million new unemployment claims over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak. There are ways to more effectively show this number’s importance.  For example, 45.7 million Americans unemployed is more than the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville combined.  This lack of context leaves readers even more in the dark when discussing political fundraising. Outlets this week covered the Biden Campaign and the DNC out fundraising their Republican counterparts for the first time this cycle, raising a whopping $80.8 million. But most people, myself included, don’t have a baseline understanding of what that much money can buy you or how it could help a candidate win an election.  Political coverage can (and, in my opinion, should) contextualize these numbers, comparing them to past campaign’s expenditures and the cost of a commonly known item. For example: 
  1. $80.8 million—enough to buy 14 prime-time Super Bowl ads. 
  2. $80.8 million—a fraction of the more than $500 million raised by the Clinton campaign in the 2016 election. 
These examples may seem patronizing on their face, but they’re an effective tool for reaching readers, regardless of their life experience, and putting the figure in terms they can understand.  

Compare the Figure to a Similar Phenomenon or Institution 

118,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 seems scary on its face. If a writer wanted to immediately convey the urgency and unprecedented nature of the situation, they could point out that COVID-19 has outpaced nearly every other cause of death across the globe—including Malaria and homicide.   The same strategy is effective with money—rather than discuss the NYPD’s $1 billion dollar pay cut, discuss their budget compared to other cities and towns across America. Charlottesville Virginia for example, my hometown, has budgeted more than a little over 1.5% of city operations for its police. The NYPD’s $6 billion makes up more than 6% of the entire city’s $95 billion budget. It’s not the $6 billion that’s startling there—with the exception of astronomers and rocket scientists, most people can’t even conceive of a number that staggeringly large—it’s that the NYPD’s share of the city budget is more than four times the size of a small town’s.  The lesson here is simple. When you are writing about something that stands out—either because it is especially bad or especially good—our high school math teachers were right. It really is important to show your work. If you’re a corporation announcing a new wave of scholarships and gifts, explain how much more it is compared to last year. If you’re forced to cut jobs and salaries as a result of this recession, show how much revenue was lost and what share of your budget consists of employee salaries. 

Explain What a Figure Means for the Reader 

Stock market news is notoriously abstract, relying on indexes like the S&P 500, DOW Jones Industrial Average, and the NASDAQ to show how the market is behaving. When the market tanks, business outlets everywhere cover the drop in excruciating detail. They’ll feature commentary from industry titans and analysts on what they think the market is going to do next.  Take, for example, this recent line in a Wall Street Journal article: “A surge in big technology stocks has helped the Nasdaq Composite rally 12% in 2020, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average of blue-chip stocks is down 8.8%. The benchmark S&P 500 is hovering in between them, off 3.5%.”  To a trader or financial expert, that line says a lot in very few words but it means absolutely nothing to the layman. This is symptomatic of a broader problem: financial news is often inaccessible to the average reader, but the stock markets’ ebbs and flows remain incredibly relevant to the millions of Americans with retirement funds. I’m not arguing that all financial news needs to relate itself back to the average American’s retirement portfolio, but this problem speaks to an issue in modern communications: explaining individual impact.  Imagine you’re a financial institution contending with low-interest rates. You have to announce that all savings account interest rates will be cut, but get to also promote record-low mortgage and auto loan rates. Putting out a press release saying “Savings and Loan Rates Will be Cut” isn’t enough information if you truly have your customer’s needs in mind. Showing the impact, whether it’s positive or negative, is in your best interest. 


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