You Can’t Spell “Numbers” Without “Numb”

Mike Long is one of the best writers I have the pleasure of reading. His latest e-newsletter is worth reprinting in full.

Numbers don’t mean anything unless you put them in human terms.

The cold precision of numbers is, to most readers, just that: cold. The vast majority of people don’t like numbers, don’t understand numbers, aren’t good with numbers, and wear their number-phobia with pride.

But as writers, the number problem we need to deal with most often isn’t the reader’s inability to divide the check three ways at dinner. The real problem is not knowing what numbers amount to in real-world terms. The United States federal budget is about $4 trillion. That sounds like a big number, but how big? The average reader has literally no idea.

How many thousands of dollars are in a million? How many millions are in a billion? How many billions in a trillion? Everybody’s lost. When we write or say $4 trillion, it impresses only because of the intimidating feeling we associate with big numbers. A good writer knows this and addresses it.

What’s the fix? Put big numbers in human terms.

For instance, a little division produces this nugget: $4 trillion in spending amounts to spending about $11 billion a day, every day. That’s a little easier to imagine, but few people really know how much a billion is, either. Dig deeper.

$4 trillion a year is about $500 million an hour. That’s more familiar, but not much. Keep going.

It’s also $7.5 million a minute — closer, but eh. I don’t really know what $7.5 million is like, do you?

But if you do the division one more time, we strike gold: $4 trillion comes down to $127,000 in spending every second. That’s a number I “get.”

If I tell you the government spends $4 trillion a year, well, you’re impressed (or worried) in a vague sort of way. But if I tell you that the government spends $127,000 a second every hour… of every day… of every year — now I have your attention.

And the real-world comparisons start writing themselves:

In one second, the federal government spends what two typical American families earn in an entire year.

Every two seconds, the federal government spends enough money to buy the average house—that’s your 30-year mortgage paid off in less time than it takes to breathe in.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence out loud, the federal government spent enough money to buy about half the homes on your block.

Every six weeks, the federal government spends enough money to buy Apple, the most valuable public company in America.

Five more weeks of spending and it could also buy ExxonMobil.

Another five and they — rather, you — have paid for Google, too.

Get the idea?

Cranking down numbers into familiar comparisons elicits something far more valuable than the typical “gee whiz” you’ve been settling for.

(By the way, it’s not hard to do the math. Just type it into your calculator, or even into Google: 4 trillion divided by 365 — that gives you dollars per day. Divide that by 24 to get dollars per hour. Divide that by 60 to get dollars per minute. See?)

Your writing has value only if you are providing something the reader does not know. So do some homework—put in effort that the reader has not or will not. Otherwise you’re just spouting uninformed opinion and if you wanted that, you could call the average “friend” on Facebook.

$127,000 a second — that’s one they’ll remember. Stop settling for vaguely scary numbers. Start comparing numbers to things everybody understands. There’s such a payoff.

Addendum (12/8/2013): Here's a good video from BuzzFeed that contextualizes 12 big numbers about Amazon:

Addendum (8/19/2014): Let’s keep this thread going. Here’s another example, from Derek Thompson:

1. According to a McKinsey Global Institute paper, email consumes an average of 13 hours per week.

2. Thus, email consumes 28% of the average workweek.

3. Thus, for every hour of work, we spend 17 minutes on email.

4. The typical “knowledge” worker — that is, somebody whose professional output is creative — earns $75,000 a year. Thus, the time spent on reading and answering email costs a company $20,990 per worker per year. Hence Thompson’s headline:

Typical White-Collar Worker Is Paid $21,000 a Year to Be on Email

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