Making Numbers Count

Sometimes Numbers Can’t Speak for Themselves

Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr is a book about making numbers approachable when presented to a crowd that insists, “I’m not a numbers person.” (Hint: That’s pretty much all of us.)

As the book explains, numbers are a second language for everyone. Our brains are wired to understand numbers 1,2,3,4 and 5. Maaaaybe multiples of 10. We can hold about 5-7 digits of information in our brains at one time. We are not built to see the number 3,692 and know instinctively what to make of it – is it big? Is it small? Can I round it up to a clean 4,000? But if I tell you that’s the average number of weeks in a human’s life…now we’re getting somewhere. 

This book is based on a simple observation: we lose information when we don’t translate numbers into instinctive human experience. We do hard, often painstaking work to generate the right numbers to help make a good decision—but all that work is wasted if those numbers never take root in the minds of the decision makers.

Making Numbers Count

At its heart, this book is meant as a reference to help build your data story by ensuring that the most important numbers are translated into something meaningful. It is a somewhat repetitive read, but a book I would recommend having on hand when your data story needs more than just charts, tables, and graphs to get the point across.

Some Book Highlights:
  • Translate Everything – The thesis of this book is that for any number you are trying to use to make an impact, try to find a way to put that number in another context. For example, can it be made more emotional or human? Can it be put onto another scale to make it more comprehensible? By doing the work to add these comparisons, you not only make your information more memorable and persuasive, but you also extend the olive branch of data harmony to your audience because they, unlike you, have not had their heads in the data the same way you have. 
  • The Curse of Knowledge – As someone who has the privilege of working with numbers on a regular basis, the curse of knowledge can create a blind spot in which the numbers would benefit from some additional contextualizing. I so deeply want the numbers to just speak to others the same way they speak to me, and sometimes it’s difficult to step out of the realm of what I know and envision how the results might look for, literally, everyone else. For once in my life, I would like the numbers to stand up and announce, “Here we are! We are clear and understandable on our own,” as I sit quietly in my corner while my clients nod their heads with clarity and understanding. Alas, that is not the reality we live in. 
  • Comparison is the Bringer of Joy – Unfortunately, expecting your audience to instinctively see the world from your own perspective has the same vibe as a small child covering her own eyes in a game of hide and seek and expecting not to be found. This book gently uncovers your eyes and provides a toolbox of methods to make numbers more approachable. I won’t give away all the secrets here, but I will say that many of the methods recommended in this book are intuitive and not unfamiliar. Rounding 0.98453 to 1 is expected, interpreting 48% as “about 1 in 2” is a-ok, and providing context to the incomprehensible is the name of the game (because a million seconds is 12 days while a billion seconds is 31 years).
Bringing Approachability to Chirp’s Quantitative Research

From my perspective, the numbers are obviously important. Asking the right questions, getting the right sample, and doing the right analyses are all imperative to getting at some semblance of truth. But at the end of the day, how those numbers are used and translated to help answer business questions and guide recommendations are the reasons we conduct research. My intention in reading this book, and adding it to my reference library, was to sharpen my ability to reach beyond the land of numbers and into the land of collective understanding, and I’m hoping it can serve the same purpose for you as well.

Numbers are only fun if they make sense to everyone. Be a good neighbor. Translate!

making numbers count

Want to read Making Numbers Count? Check it out on Goodreads and Amazon