How to write numbers to persuade your audience
Skill with financial numbers is essential in an effective communication role
This is much more important than many people realize. Good understanding of figures is central to successful handling of key tasks such as gaining initial approval, in managing and monitoring activities, and in reporting outcomes. Also, you need to be able to talk sensibly about financial matters with senior managers.
Main financial tasks for communicators:
- Use financial numbers as evidence with non-financial indicators of the value of PR and your contribution as an individual
- Develop budgets for communication plans, PR departments, and agencies
- Monitor and manage the finances of communication plans, PR departments and PR agencies
- Contribute intelligently to senior management meetings and discussions about business matters
- Write articles in internal publications, blogs, websites and social media
- Understand and write about data in employers’ annual reports
- Oversee audits of social media and news media activities
- Manage social/traditional media monitoring analysis
- Use statistical analysis for data-based news releases
- Conduct market research analysis/recommendations
- Calculating your own salary and costs!
Just as importantly, you need to know how to use numbers persuasively in issue management activities. You can learn how to make your messages stronger in framing – by using numbers people can better relate to.
How good are you with fundamental financial calculations?
If you increase an amount from $100 in one year to $300 the next year, what is the percentage increase?
Many people will say it is 300% growth. But it is actually a 200% increase! Why?
To calculate the percentage increase:
- Calculate the difference (in this case it is an increase) between the two numbers you are comparing.
- Divide the increase by the original number and multiply the answer by 100. If your answer is a negative number then this is a percentage decrease.
In this case, the difference is $200 divided by the original number $100, then multiplied by 100 = 200%.
So, if you increase a figure by $100 from $700 to $800 from one year to the next, what is the percentage increase?
Using the above formula, the difference is $100. Then you divide the increase of $100 by the original number, $700, and multiply by 100. Answer therefore equals 14.3%, rounding to the nearest decimal point.
Top tips for using numbers more effectively, especially in issue management
1. Most numbers mean little to most readers
- Explain the meaning of the numbers first and then quote the numbers to support that meaning. For instance, “Many people damage their prospects of healthy aging. Research by the Laughton Institute has found 78% of people over 60 years of age don’t exercise sufficiently.”
- Quote numbers strategically – only use them if they genuinely support the topic, principle or frame they relate to.
2. Make numbers resonate with the target audience by referring or comparing
- Familiar numbers or costs (eg cost of houses or medical services)
- Dramatic events (eg the number of people needing relocation after major natural events like volcanoes and hurricanes)
- Costs that are smaller and understandable (eg an item, donation or activity that would cost less than the cost of a cup of coffee each day)
- Current numbers from other issues (eg “It’s almost half of the average individual spend by people aged 51-60 years on prescribed medications each year”).
3. Ensure the figures support the theme or frame
- Provide the framing cues that are missing in the raw numbers. For example, “Community residents living near an oil refinery found from statutory reports that the plant emits 7 tons of atmospheric pollutants per day, which is the equivalent of 2 years, or 700 times more pollution than all the school children in the town would experience if they lived in a normal, clean town environment.”
- By explaining one number in terms of another, the problem gets defined—pollutants (the issue) are “about” health and what’s at stake is our children (advocacy).
- These comparisons are much more effective than merely giving basic figures such as the total number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents each year. These types of figures are just numbers that don’t enable people to compare with things they know and understand in daily life. But if the message states that more people are killed on the roads locally each year than could fit into the biggest [specific] local football stadium, the average person can easily relate to the size of the problem, and they can visualize the image in their mind. This helps to counter the information overload from which we all suffer.
4. Show numbers in context
Numbers tell you the facts, but when writing about them you need to place them in context for your audience. Don’t just take a number you’re given at face value – dig deeper into how similar numbers compare, eg last year’s results. Also, find out how the figures you’re using are actually calculated. Learn what numbers are most important for your point so you can understand what fluctuations mean. For example:
- The council’s revenue/budget is up 10% from last year.
- What’s the context: is this part of rising economic performance in the area?
- How does this rise compare with the council’s recent or past results?
5. Break the numbers down by time
If you know the amount over a year, what does that look like per hour? For example, the average annual salary of a typical industry worker nationally may only be $25,000, which is approximately $500 per week or around $13.50 per hour. While many people understand that an annual salary of $25,000 is low, breaking down by the hour or the day reinforces that point. In this way you can quite starkly compare the person’s income with their weekly costs such as rent, food, clothing, travel to work, etc.
6. Break down the numbers by place
Comparing a statistic with a well-known location can give people an idea of the size of the figure. For instance, about 50,000 children may be obese, and the number is rising fast. That’s enough to fill Stuart Stadium, the biggest sports venue in the State. This type of comparison helps people to visualize the size of the problem and make the solution more vital.
7. Provide comparisons using familiar concepts
It helps to put numbers into perspective. Helping your audience to visualize figures relative to concepts they already understand can help them in understanding the significance of these figures:
- “That is as big as…”
- “That is twice as large as…”
- “About the size of a football field”
- “The equivalent of pouring a teaspoon of water in a lake.”
- “Three times as high as …….”
8. Provide ironic comparisons
For example, the average monthly cost per resident of providing this health service in this State is half of the cost of an individual’s monthly average spending on fast food. It is hugely ironic that parents and the public focus so much on the cost of this valuable service when they happily spend the same amount in total on fast food that undermines their health.
9. Localize the numbers
Make comparisons that will resonate with community members. For example, rather than saying after-school care for students costs $15,000 per year in Los Angeles, it is much more powerful to say “A father making a minimum wage in Los Angeles would have to spend 65% of his annual income for after-school care for his children.” That number can also be broken down into the number of hours per week the father would have to work to pay for the care.
10. Find relevant comparison statistics outside the immediate topic
Once you have an idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it, you can find useful comparisons from outside the field you are writing about. Avoid controversial topics for your comparison, such as politics or crime, or anything that could get twisted out of context. A relevant comparison example can be to highlight a large amount of money being spent on another project compared with the amount currently being proposed for the matter you are discussing.
11. Use infographics to visually represent the numbers
Using infographics can help to make your figures more accessible and easily understandable for your audience. They can also make your story more compelling. But ensure the infographics are as clear and explanatory as possible – and not too lengthy.
Crucial to fact check your figures
Double check the statistics you provide. Keep for reference the data and formulae you used so you can provide to respond to possible queries. Ask your colleagues to check your figures to ensure they are clear, compelling, and inoffensive. Ensure your numbers have a strong factual basis and do not detract from your point or damage your credibility.
Carefully review the accuracy of any claims you are making. If you are using the figures for advocacy, you must be able to understand and defend the data and the way you are presenting the information. Some people may challenge you if your figures are inconsistent or the figures don’t fit into clearly defined terms.
Ensure presentation of numbers for maximum recall
If numbers will help you tell your story, use them. But your audience probably won’t remember them if you’re precise, which might seem a little counter-intuitive – but rounded figures are usually easier to remember and easier to emphasize with emotion.
- More than 80% — not 83% (although you could refer to 83% as 5 out of 6)
- Two-thirds — not 66%
- Almost one hundred years ago — not 96 years ago
- More than 6,000 people — not 6,250 people
Don’t overload your audience with numbers. The reality is the fewer the better.
And don’t show unnecessary decimal points; just round off to the nearest whole number or a single decimal point at most if it is important to be that precise. Even the tax office in my country wants taxpayers to provide figures only to the nearest dollar rather than show any cents. You can find good rounding advice on Wikipedia and via Google.
The plural of anecdote is not data
PR people too often draw conclusions based on inadequate sample sizes. Reading the same conclusion in a couple of news items or social media anecdotes is not the same as finding a genuine trend. Before conclusions can be drawn and trends analyzed, the volume of data needs to be substantial and representative. Too many people extrapolate (make guesses) based on very small sample sizes such as a story they have read or what a single person has told them what was important.
Here are some problems to avoid when designing graphs:
- Vague labeling of axes
- Shortening an axis so it ends or starts in a misleading place
- Specific numbers not adding up correctly, or not being shown, especially in pie charts
- Visual deceptions, like inappropriate use of white space or comparative elements that don’t seem to correspond to the data they represent
- Poor use of a graph type (like using pie charts when a bar chart would be clearer)
- Cherrypicking data, like including limited years or responses chosen to support a specific argument
- Bad graphic choices, like low-contrast color choices or a distorting perspective
- No title
- No key for the information in the graph
Applying the advice in this article will help you present more persuasive cases in your professional communication. You can put this information to good effect when you implement the content of my ebooks on writing a strategic annual communication plan or communication campaign plan.