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.
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.
Resources for writing descriptive statistics
Need a starting point for your statistical analogies? Check out these resources:
- CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics FastStats. Find out how many people visited an emergency room or got married in 2022.
- City-Data. Get everything from satellite photos to resident stats on U.S. cities and states.
- Finding Data on the Internet. Journalist Robert Niles’ list of helpful links to “reputable data on everything from public safety to campaign contributions”
- Google’s Dataset Search. “If you’re looking for data, your search should start here.” — The Poynter Institute
- The Polling Report. Find out how many people think what.
- U.S. Census Bureau. For those times when you just need to know that the world population is 7,962,800,541
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 clear-writing workshop on June 20.
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.
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