Avoid Numbers: Perfect Translations Don’t Need Numbers
“Avoid numbers.” That recommendation might surprise you, as if we were starting our cookbook with a warning: STEP AWAY FROM THE FOOD. But the overall goal with a number translation is to relay a message, and that goal doesn’t always require numbers.
If you’ve ever returned from an extended trip overseas, you know the oddly comforting feeling of seeing airport signs in your native tongue: Baggage claim. Food court. Exit.
Math is no one’s native tongue. At best, it’s a second language, picked up in school through formal teaching. The more you can relay your message in the native song of your people—without math—the better.
The secret to translating numbers is simple: avoid using them. Translate them into concrete, vivid, meaningful messages that are clear enough to make numbers unnecessary.
The next example is a science class about ecology. The example tries to get across how very little water is drinkable despite the fact that the world is filled with water. Here’s the numbers-intensive version of the statistics.
97.5% of the world’s water is salinated. Of the 2.5% that’s fresh, over 99% is trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In total, only .025% of the water on the globe is actually drinkable by humans and animals.
The original statistic is compelling—but it’s unmemorable.
Here’s translation of those facts into a thought experiment that was simple and concrete:
Imagine a gallon jug filled with water with three ice cubes next to it. All of the water in the jug is salt water. The ice cubes are the only fresh water, and humans can only drink the drops that are melting off of each.
Try Focusing on 1 at a Time
The quickest route to having people understand your number is to start with something simple, a well-understood part of the overall scene: 1 employee, citizen, or student. 1 business, marriage, or classroom. 1 deal, game, or day. Focus on 1 concrete chunk of an experience: 1 prototypical visit, 1 day, 1 month in the quarter.
If that very simple setup makes your point, declare victory! You can end there.
Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored over 35,000 points. Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored an average of over 27 points per game.
Our temptation is to go for the staggering number. “Wow, that is big.” 35,000 feels huge. 27 doesn’t. At least not at first.
This misconception is something we have labeled “big-ism.” We are tempted to go for something bigger when what we really need is something with a size we can understand. “Big as a bus” makes intuitive sense—we’ve seen one and know it can squash us. “Big as a galaxy” has less heft.
In the case of LeBron James, we don’t know how many points players typically accumulate during a basketball career. But we do know 27 points in one game. It means you were on fire that night. If that’s your average night, for high school or college, well, that means you’re really good at basketball. If you maintain that through 18 years of NBA play, well, that means you’re frickin’ good at basketball. But we can only see that by looking at the typical game. That is the power of 1.
Favor User-Friendly Numbers
Perform the following experiment on yourself, then on a friend who will humor you for 90 seconds. Glance at List A for a few seconds, close your eyes, and say the numbers out loud. Repeat for List B.
- 73 times bigger
- 3 million
- 6 times bigger
Which list did you remember better? If you said “List A,” you probably forgot which was A. The second list is easier to deal with in every way: it’s easier to understand, easier to retain, and easier to repeat.
And the information it conveys is functionally the same. That new office that’s 6 times bigger won’t feel any less spacious if you find it’s only 5.73 times bigger. And try telling someone who got only half as much pay for the same amount of work someone else did that they actually got 9/17ths as much. See if they feel better.
Find Your Fathom: Help People Understand Through Simple, Familiar Comparisons
Observe how local health campaigns around the world translated “6 feet” to relay social distancing guidelines during the COVID pandemic. Effective translations combine easily imagined comparisons with as little math as possible:
- 1 hockey stick—Canada
- 1 tatami mat—Japan
- 1 adult gator—Florida
- 1 surfboard—San Diego
- 1 bear—Russia
- 2 baguettes—France
- 4 koalas—Sydney, Australia
- 24 buffalo wings—Buffalo, NY
- 72 pistachios—New Mexico
Some of these are useful; others are just cute. You’ve seen a hockey stick or fishing rod before. But if you’ve ever witnessed 24 buffalo wings or 72 pistachios end-to-end, someone needs more training in table manners.
So to come up with your fathom, brainstorm items of a similar size that your audience would know well. If you get stuck, use the MacGyver principle. In the 1980s television show, MacGyver would use his knowledge of science to create tools that Batman or James Bond would have spent millions on. Except MacGyver built his tools out of recycled fast-food containers from lunch. The MacGyver principle is this: Look around you. See what you can build using found objects in the environment. Consider what’s universally known to your people: local references, objects used in your field, items in the news.
Convert Abstract Numbers into Concrete Objects
There’s one easy way to do this: translate your problem from the abstract domain of numbers to the concrete domain of the senses. Concreteness helps us understand faster and remember longer. Cultural products such as proverbs, jokes, folk ballads, and epic sagas become more concrete as they transmit from one person to another, because the concrete parts are more likely to be remembered and passed on.
It’s hard for people to misinterpret or forget a number when their senses are doing the work. Imagine being told, in a hard conversation with a doctor, that your tumor is 3 cm. Half an hour later, you may struggle to remember the number, and may even confuse millimeters and centimeters. But “grape-size” is easy to remember, and hard to confuse. The translations also do the difficult work of converting a measure of length into a three-dimensional object.
Make It Personal: “This Is About You”
People are willing in most circumstances to join you in a mental journey. In the unfolding story below, the fact that I am imagining myself acting adds drama and keeps attention focused on the story.
Jeff Bezos is worth $198 billion.
Let’s imagine if each step of a staircase represents $100,000 in the bank. Most people, including 1 in 2 Americans and 89% of the world, can’t even step onto the first step of the staircase because they have less. After 4 steps, we’ve lost over 75% of Americans. Fewer than 1 in 10 people will ever reach the 10th step: a million dollars.
Now put on your most comfortable hiking shoes. You’d have to climb for almost 3 hours before reaching the net worth of a billionaire.
After spending 9 hours a day climbing steps for 2 months, you’d have Ironman-level quads as you finally reach the wealth of Jeff Bezos.
Bring Your Number into the Room with a Demonstration
People can easily forget what they’re told. They have a better chance of remembering what they see. But something they do becomes part of their experience in a much deeper way, getting embedded in their memory and instincts.
To demonstrate how tragic it is to waste a microsecond, Grace Hopper cut a wire the length that a signal could travel in that time to show to her programmers. A microsecond goes by so fast we can’t even register it. But 984 feet of copper wire can’t escape our notice. Especially in the early days of computing, when resources were precious, this helped programmers be conscious of waste that they couldn’t notice directly.
Hopper’s 984 feet of wire is showing the number. But if she wanted to make it into an even more memorable demonstration, she could have taken it a step further and really made her programmers experience the number. For example, if she’d tied teams of two programmers together and made them race this distance in a three-legged race. Even the fittest navy midshipman (Hopper was a rear admiral as well as a programmer) would have trouble getting through 984 feet of a three-legged race in good shape. Afterward she could tell them, “The distance you raced is what an electrical signal travels in a microsecond. Don’t waste those!”