Numbers can play a crucial role in many of your documents at work. But beware of the trap of thinking that data can speak for itself. You need to do that part.
Figures can back up your claims with evidence and help draw attention to your most important facts, trends and comparisons. If what you’re writing about is quite dry, there’s usually a statistic that will grab your reader’s attention.
Unfortunately, numbers can also have the opposite effect. If they’re poorly explained, they’ll slow your reader to a crawl as they try to work out exactly what you’re saying. You risk losing the reader altogether in a sea of context-free figures – and statistics that aren’t related to their concerns will be no sooner read than forgotten.
But there are ways that you can make the most of your figures – and your research – that we’re going to explore here. Remember these three things and you’ll be sure to give your numbers real impact.
1. Frame your statistics to show their significance
A well-written statistic can capture your reader’s attention by itself. Here’s a widely quoted example that dates back to 2007:
‘One in every £7 spent in retail (in the UK) is spent in Tesco.’
It’s an arresting statistic. But what made it so popular?
Let’s start with some alternative ways of saying the same thing. Simply talking about the raw numbers of Tesco’s sales figures wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect:
‘Tesco’s retail sales totalled £35.6 billion.’
This won’t mean anything to the average person – you could change the number to £350.6 billion or £3.56 billion and many people would accept it as true. (And, more than that, not really know how much they should care.) In other words, without any context, 35.6 billion is just a very large number.
Putting the number in context is what starts to give it meaning:
‘Tesco accounted for £35.6 billion of the £303.6 billion spent in retail sales in the UK.’
This gives you a sense of Tesco being a major player in the market. We understand this better now because we have a frame of reference – the overall size of the retail market.
But, the numbers are still not framed in a way that most people will directly relate to. After all, most of us don’t deal with ‘the retail market’ – it’s an abstraction. On top of that, extremely large numbers are hard to understand intuitively.
The majority of us do, however, spend money on products and fuel. Saying ‘One in every £7 spent in retail is spent in Tesco’ turns this statistic into the very familiar context of the coins and notes in our wallets. At the same time, the problem of talking about big, difficult-to-grasp numbers disappears.
Finding your winning examples
So how do you do the same thing? As ever, the most important person to consider is your reader. So profile them. By asking what your reader knows and wants, you can more easily set numbers into the appropriate context.
For example, let’s take these basic statistics:
‘According to data from the Land Registry, house prices in East Sussex rose by over £18,000 between February 2015 and February 2016. This means that the average home in East Sussex now sells for over £214,000.’
The same statistics have different implications depending on whom you’re writing for. If you were writing for someone interested in buying a house, you might compare this to the national average house prices. Whereas, if you were writing a report on the cost of living, you could compare this to the median wage in East Sussex.
2. Watch out for unfamiliar units of measurement
It’s easy to think of numbers as somehow fundamentally different from words. Of course, in your work documents, they’re alike in one key respect: they both have to make sense to your readers.
Whatever specialist area you work in and write about, you always need to be aware of what technical language and jargon might need explaining along the way – and numbers are a magnet for specialist terms. Each domain has its own measures that are widely understood within the field, but widely unintelligible to anyone outside it – from economists measuring Terms of Trade to consultants looking at Net Promoter Score feedback.
You can reduce the chances of confusing your readers by thinking about them before you start writing. Do they work in the same field? Do they share your terminology? Are they likely to understand the significance of the measurements? Again, profiling your reader is vital. You’ll probably find that, with a little thought, you already have a pretty good idea of what your readers will and won’t understand.
And if you’re still uncertain, try giving a draft of your document to your reader – or to someone you think is similar to them in terms of background knowledge. See if they can understand your technical terms and measurements. If they have trouble, you’ll either need to explain your terms more clearly or think of a way of rewriting what you’re saying in a way that doesn’t involve them.
3. Work smart with tables and charts
There are three main ways of presenting numbers in your documents: text, tables and charts. These options can complement each other, rather than being strict alternatives.
However, in most situations, you will only need either a chart or a table – both is usually overkill. So which should you use?
If you need to report lots of precise figures for reference, it’s better to put them in a table. This saves you from having to write long, hard-to-follow sentences containing all of your values. (Remember too that if most of your readers won’t need access to your data, you can always put tables in an appendix rather than in your main document.)
Charts and graphs are usually better for showing detailed relationships, relative proportions and trends – but remember that your readers won’t be able to read off precise figures.
Whichever you use, just including charts, graphs and tables isn’t enough. It’s very important to interpret them in your text. So always remember to draw out the main implications that are relevant to your reader.
For tables, draw out typical values if you want to show a general relationship, or exceptional values if you want to draw attention to a particular figure. For example:
Every year, fewer people are using Internet Explorer. Table 1 shows how Internet Explorer’s usage share has plummeted from 66 per cent in 2009, to just 16 per cent in 2016.
For graphs and charts, describe the size and kind of overall trend that you’re showing. For example, a graph might show a trough in sales over Christmas or a fluctuating number of support tickets. (For more ways to describe trends, click here.)
When you’ve interpreted graphs and tables well, your reader should be able to understand what they show – and the significance of it – just by reading the text.
Putting your interpretation of the graph’s or chart’s data into the body of your text also means you can bring your reader’s attention to the figures at the relevant point in your argument. Your reader can then test your conclusions by looking at the data for themselves.
Keeping your numbers working
Although you might think of words and numbers as different languages, in business writing success lies in seeing what the two have in common. They’re both there to help you achieve the aims and objectives you have for your document – and, ultimately, to meet the needs of your reader.
As with all writing, the key to getting your message across is keeping the needs and knowledge of your reader in mind as you write. Do that, and you can be confident that you’ll be making your numbers and research count.
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