This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Anastasiia Polokhlyvets contributed this article. Today, text-only posts in a blog don’t work. At all. As a result, this is
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