Recently, I wrote about how a wall is a powerful concept because it's so specific and tangible. Whether it's made of steel or cement, a wall is concrete. We can picture it. 

But what about $5.7 billion, the amount that a certain wall is supposed to cost? That's a big number, but here's the thing: A number is not compelling. It's abstract. And because of that, a number doesn't stick.

That's why if you're communicating about numbers, you should listen to my husband, Paul B. Brown, who has written more than 40 business books. His rule is this: Never use a number unless you compare it to something else. (I don't always listen to him, but I do about this.)

Paul's premise is that a fact just hanging out there gives the brain nothing to hold onto. But create a comparison and people can make connections. For example: "Our profits are just one-quarter of what we made last year."

Wall Street Journal columnist Jo Craven McGinty use comparisons to bring a number to life in her recent article, "Is $5.7 Billion a Lot for a Wall?" She did the math and compared the cost for the wall with a lot of things, including:

  • The gross domestic product of the U.S. ($5.7 is .03 percent of the GDP)
  • How much Amazon's Jeff Bezos is worth (1/20th)
  • Every person residing the U.S. ($17 each)
  • Every undocumented immigrant apprehended at the border in 2017 ($18,750 per person)

Isn't it interesting how you can picture $17 in your wallet much more easily than you can imagine $5.7 billion? The first is tangible (a 10, a five, and two singles) and the second is too vague to wrap your mind around.

What else can you do to effectively communicate numbers? Here's the advice I give leaders when they're sharing numbers with employees at events like town hall meetings:

  1. Reduce the number of facts you share. When leaders communicate quarterly results, for example, they tend to include all the numbers they'd provide to analysts or bankers. But think about what employees really need to know--and what's important for them to retain. You can probably boil all that data down to three to five key facts.
  2. Create a compelling visual. Charts and graphs? Yawn. But make the visual arresting--a photo of an elephant next to a mouse--and employees are more likely to pay attention, get the concept, and remember it.
  3. Tell a story. Human brains glom onto stories, which are like little movies in our minds. So rather than reporting on statistics for new customer acquisition, bring the facts to life: "We've attracted more new customers this year than ever before. In fact, I visited our sales department last week and they had filled a whole wall with Post-Its, each one representing a sales lead. The team was working 12 to 14 hours a day following up. They were so busy that they put me to work; I answered 15 emails before I could escape!"

Notice that I keep referring to "concept", not fact. That's because the most important thing to retain is the big idea--we need more customers--not the exact percentage of how many more customers we need. Once you move away from "just the facts" and concentrate on important concepts, you'll improve the effectiveness of your communication.

Published on: Jan 29, 2019