How to make numbers meaningfulHow rare is it to be born on February 29, the extra day in a Leap Year? By chance I was travelling on this extra day one year, and found this explanation by journalist Steve Rubenstein in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Being born on Feb. 29 is rare, sort of. The odds of it happening are 1 in 1,461. But it’s not all that rare. There are 200,000 Americans alive today who were born on Feb. 29, enough people to fill every seat in AT&T Park five times.”

This explanation is a great example of putting numbers into context. What are odds of 1 in 1,461? I sure don’t know. Probably your readers or listeners don’t either – until you relate the unknown to the known. This is especially important when it comes to enormous, tiny or significant numbers. So help out by:

Doing the math, and relating to something readers can visualize

“If I were to give someone $3 trillion and tell him that he had to spend $100 million each and every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and then told him not to come back to me until he had spent every last penny, said person would not return for approximately 82 years.” – Andrew J. Carra, quoted by Daphne Grey-Grant (sorry, can’t find the link)

Making a large number relatable by comparing it to something known

“One terabyte is equal to 16 days of continuously running DVD movies or 8,000 times more data than the human brain retains in a lifetime.” – IBM

Making a small number understandable by comparing it to something known

“The difference between, say, 5.10 and 5.15 is hardly perceptible to the eye. An average hair for example may be 0.1 mm thick.” – Wild Fish Gemstone shop

Showing significance without actual numbers

“If they want to get in [the walled gardens of social media networks], they have to do so on the terms set by the social media networks, chiefly Facebook, which now has more users than there are people in China.” – Stephen Maher, quoted in JSource

“To get an idea of the scale of the enormous toll from traffic crashes, imagine that, every month, we lost nearly the same number of people who were killed on 9/11.” – Jill Cooper, quoted in the New York Times

Making time relatable

“Horkins had six weeks to arrive at this conclusion, or roughly the same amount of time William Faulkner needed to pen As I Lay Dying.” – Vinay Menon in the Toronto Star

So if you’re faced with a numbing amount of numbers, do your best to make them understandable. One thing to be careful of is relating numbers to something not really familiar. As Ann Wylie says, “You could compare the cost of a program to a stack of dollar bills that go to the moon and back, but how many people have been to the moon and back?”

What are your best tips for explaining numbers? Please share. And let me know if you’d like help making your own numbers meaningful.

A version of this article first appeared in my newsletter, Wordnerdery. It’s a quick read about words, effective/expressive writing, newsletters and more. Are you a subscriber yet? If yes, thanks for reading! If not, you can sign up right now. In keeping with Canada’s anti-spam laws, you can easily unsubscribe any time; well, as long as you don’t mind crushing my spirit.