How to hunt down numerical comparisons
When I wrote an annual report about charitable giving in Kansas City, I wanted to compare the $770 million Kansas Citians gave to charitable organizations in one year to make that number more meaningful to the audience.
As Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute says:
“Every time you feel your fingers reach for the top row of the keyboard, ask, ‘What’s it like?’”
To track down the comparisons, I:
- Used the Business Journal’s Book of Lists to report that $770 million was “more than the annual revenues of Blue Cross/Blue Shield” and “more than the combined annual budgets of the metropolitan area’s three largest school districts.”
- Checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find the city’s average wage. After a few minutes with my calculator, I was able to report: “To achieve that amount, some 24,000 people would have to work full time for a year at Kansas City’s average hourly wage of $15.59.”
- Did the math. From the Book of Lists, I learned the size of the student body of one of the city’s largest school districts. I divided $770 million by the number of students. The result: in the neighborhood of $35,000 per student.
- Asked: “What would that buy that students might want?” (That helps you sync your metaphors with your topic.) My answer: some kind of car. That year, Jeeps were popular, so I …
- Googled “how much is a jeep” to find out what kind of Jeep I could get for $35,000.
As a result, I was able to report that:
The $770 million Kansas Citians give to charity each year is more than enough to buy every student in the Kansas City, Kan., School District a brand-new Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Anyone who’s mastered seventh-grade math can add some statistical evidence to most stories. All it takes is some extra time with your BFF and research assistant Google, the calculator on your phone and a few minutes to figure out how to figure it out.
How can you help readers get the numbers?
If your readers are like most, they have, on average, below-basic numerical literacy, according to a massive international literacy study.
Learn to make numbers interesting and understandable at Rev Up Readability, our tight-writing workshop on Feb. 22-26.
There, you’ll learn to avoid statistics soup and data dumps; how to make numbers more emotional; how to create meaningful — not discombobulating — charts and which key question to ask every time your fingers reach for the top row of the keyboard.
Save up to $100 with our group discounts.