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Use numbers to make your writing more persuasive

01 Jun, 2020 Writing and layout

Has a colleague ever said to you: “I started a writing career because I’m hopeless with numbers.”? Many communicators find it difficult to understand, use and write about numbers. Some even admit to entering a writing career so they will avoid dealing with figures. Yet figures are increasingly central to good practice. In addition to the ongoing need to write about numbers for general readers, we need to become familiar with metrics used for strategy and results of digital media campaigns, etc. Also, we need to increasingly report results to senior management using numerical terms they are familiar with, and the formats they use like spreadsheets.

Here are some of the tasks for which you need to do basic calculations:

  • Writing articles in internal publications, intranets, blogs, websites and social media
  • Understanding and using data published by legal requirement in annual reports
  • Social media and traditional media audits
  • Social and news media monitoring analysis and reporting
  • Budgeting for communication campaigns and annual programs
  • Data published in press releases
  • Market research analysis/recommendations

You can learn a lot from these free NYT training materials

If you want to improve your handling of data and spreadsheets, you could learn a lot from the New York Times (of all sources!). Yet command of numbers and data has become more important than ever for journalists. Numbers are now central in writing about sectors such as education, the stock market, the Census and criminal justice. As a result, NYT editors wanted to help their reporters better understand the numbers they get from government and other sources, and to give them the tools to analyze those numbers.

Therefore, they have been running training sessions to educate NYT journalists to write knowledgeably about numbers. Based in Google Sheets, the content starts with beginner skills like sorting, searching and filtering; progresses to pivot tables; and ends with advanced data cleaning skills. (You can choose whether you want to learn the hard stuff.) Along the way, they discuss data-friendly story structures, data ethics and how to bulletproof data stories.

The Times Open team has made all the training material available for free for anyone looking to copy some or all of its curriculum, such as students, professors or journalists at other publications. This material would be valuable for PR pros – and PR academics could even use some of it for their courses. The NYT team has developed dozens of spreadsheets, worksheets, cheat sheets, slide decks, lesson plans and more. You can view all the training material here.

Here’s what’s included in the training files:

  • Training information: A list of skills included in the training, such as technical skills and data ethics.
  • Data sets: Some of the sample data sets and worksheet activities used in practice sessions, organized into three difficulty levels.
  • Cheat sheets: Taken from each core skill session, covering most of the technical skills covered. They are meant as reference materials for reporters as they practice and apply skills. Since the training is in Google Sheets, the technical prompts are for that program.
  • Tip sheets: These include some of the more random and non-technical skills covered in the sessions, such as how to bulletproof your work, how to brainstorm with data and how to think creatively while writing with data.

So, if you want to become more comfortable and adept with numbers in your writing, you could benefit greatly from learning some of the relevant content in the NYT training material. This knowledge could be a significant plus for your career, especially if it shows senior management you can speak and write about numbers in their language.

How to persuade with numbers

Trevor Bragdon has written a helpful article in the Medium online magazine (free) in which he outlines ways to use social psychology to persuade people by presenting numbers in tune with the way people think. Worth reading so you can gain some ideas on presenting data more strongly to make your case.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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