Being able to write about numbers well is a core skill. But it can become needlessly fraught – mainly because those who find maths straightforward often don’t understand why it’s difficult for others to grasp. Luckily, there are three principles that can take the pain out of the process: simplify, signpost and be specific.
When you’re translating a complex set of figures – for instance, a company’s financial results – into a written summary, it’s all too easy to get distracted by the sheer volume of information. This means you end up cramming in as much detail as possible, which can weaken your main message and confuse your reader, even if the audience is largely technical.
Unless you’re confident that your piece will be read by someone who will be taking their time and making notes, it’s better to avoid dealing with more than two sets of numbers in any one sentence. Also, try not to have several sentences in succession that introduce new figures. Break them up with analysis and observations.
Under this approach, the following sentence is fine:
‘Sales increased 10 per cent to £2.7bn, while profits rose five per cent to £10m.’
Despite containing four figures, it introduces only two concepts (what happened to sales, and what happened to profits).
However, try to include a year-on-year comparison in the same sentence, and it becomes much less readable.
‘Sales increased 10 per cent to £2.7bn in 2012, a slight improvement on 2011’s figure of eight per cent, while profits for 2012 rose five per cent to £10m, up from four per cent in 2011.’
If you’re preparing a script or notes for TV or radio, try to reduce this still further to just one topic per sentence. To see how much more difficult it is to follow figures presented verbally, ask someone to read you the press release of any financial results – then see how much of what you heard you recall.
Pick the numbers that really matter, and focus on getting those across.
Often, the same piece of writing will have to work for multiple audiences with very different technical abilities. A half-year update will be read for detailed information by analysts and investors, but perhaps also skimmed by potential clients and journalists looking for an overview of the company.
For the former, the detail is vital, and if you remove it they will find the information insufficient – but leaving it in may confuse the latter.
This is where signposting helps. Compare the following two statements:
‘Underlying net revenues, the best metric for sales, increased 9.7 per cent year-on-year to £2.72bn, while profits before tax made strong progress, increasing 5.0 per cent to £9.9m.’
‘Sales and profits both grew strongly on the company’s key metrics. Underlying net revenues increased 9.7 per cent year-on-year to £2.72bn, and profit before tax grew 5.0 per cent to £9.9m.’
The second example is a little longer, but it primes readers on what to expect from the rest of the paragraph. It also serves as an explanation of the particular measures of revenue and profit being used.
Signposts should be short and simple, and group related information. If they seem overly complex, you’re probably trying to load too much into one paragraph.
How specific your writing needs to be varies depending on your audience and the information you’re conveying.
For a general audience, simple, round figures are always best. Avoid decimal points where possible, and minimise figures. Consider using descriptions such as ‘one in five’ rather than ’20 per cent’, if it helps make the meaning clearer.
More financially or technically literate audiences tend to prefer (or even demand) more specificity. In reality, the inputs on forecasting models are often rounded up or down, and the outcomes are therefore uncertain.
For example, a forecasting model generated in Excel might come out with a brilliantly specific-looking sales projection: next year, the spreadsheet says, Company A will sell 67,971.2 tricycles. But this figure appears more precise than it really is.
Try to reflect this: if the margins of error on an estimate are known, make that clear. This needn’t be complex. For example, if the margin was roughly +/-500, you could write the estimate as:
‘Projections for the next year suggest Company A will sell around 68,000 tricycles.’
Again, keep your audience in mind: analysts and specialists may well expect to see explicit references to margins of error.
Take similar care when writing about risk and uncertainty. If you write ‘the chance of catastrophic failure has increased threefold, year-on-year,’ you may well terrify a reasonable portion of your readership. If the risk of catastrophic failure has increased from 0.01 per cent to 0.03 per cent, that panic probably wasn’t your intention.
Make sure you’re confident of the difference between absolute and relative risk. Absolute risk describes how probable it is that something will occur. Relative risk is a comparison between different risk levels. In most cases, it will be appropriate to use the former.
Most importantly of all, keep reminding yourself who it is you’re writing for, what they need to know and the level of their technical expertise. Keeping your reader at the front of your mind will help you remember to speak in language that they will understand and find compelling.
James Ball is Special Projects Editor at the Guardian.