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Making Numbers Count

We all know people who don’t like numbers. Maybe you are one of these people! “I’m bad at math” is a common refrain. As educators, this hurts our hearts. While we do not have the power to emotionally coach everyone into confident mathletes, we can help you write and talk about numbers in a clearer, more accessible way.

Everyone uses numbers in their work and daily lives. Statistics can be helpful in illustrating community needs or growing opportunities. Budgeting is part of our personal and professional realities. Even writing a resume can bring up basic arithmetic. We know that numbers can feel isolating to people. It’s important that when we choose to share numerical information, we’re making the purpose and usefulness clear.

The title of this image is "Local Snapshot: Numeracy Skills." There are three rows of data. Each row has little icons of people. The first row says "In Illinois, about 1 in 3 people may experience some challenges with everyday math tasks." There is one yellow person icon next to two blue icons. The next row reads, "In Cook County, IL about 1 in 3 people may experience some challenges with everyday math tasks." This has the same icons as the first row. The third row reads, "In Alexander County, IL, about 1 in 2 people may experience some challenges with everyday math tasks." There is one yellow icon next to a blue icon.
Data from the PIACC Skills Map Estimate

Grounded in Plain Language

In workshops you’ll often hear us quote the International Plain Language Federation’s definition of plain language: “a communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

How do we apply these ideas to numbers? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What specific information do I want people to take away from this?

  2. Why does my audience need to know this information?

  3. What action do I want people to take once they know this information?

If you can answer these questions clearly, it’ll be a lot easier to present numbers in a way that resonates with your audience.

Making Sense of Numbers

Once your purpose is clear, you can get into the details. Here are some tips and tricks for helping numbers feel more relatable:

Use visuals that make sense

Graphs and charts are a great way to help people visualize numerical information. Bar graphs help compare different data points, while pie charts show pieces of a whole data set. Whatever visuals you choose to help get your message across, make sure they’re showing what you want them to.

It’s also important that all visuals are labeled clearly. Provide a descriptive title that tells your audience what information is included. Give each data point a label so people don’t have to guess what they’re looking at. When thinking about font style and size, make sure the writing is big enough and horizontal - reading vertical text can be challenging and inaccessible for people using screen readers.

The image below is a great example of creativity gone awry. If they had used a traditional pie chart, it would be much easier to see the differences in percentage. It would have been easier to label each section without the long lines. They also used similar colors for the scale at the bottom, which creates confusion about what the colors represent.

This image is an infographic. The title is "Know your poop." In the center of the image there is a swirl of poop made out of colored clay. Each colored section represents a different component of poop. The larges section is orange, for 75% water. The green section is 8% indigestible fibers. The red section is 8% dead bacteria. The dark blue section is 4% fats. The purple section is 4% salts. And the blue section is 1% protein. Under the poop swirl is a "poop color chart." There is a row of colors, and each color is labeled with a corresponding ailment.
Image from The Guardian Online “16 Bad Infographics”

Give people a familiar reference

The human brain isn’t great at visualizing numbers. The larger the number, the harder it is for us to conceptualize. Relating numbers to something familiar goes a long way in helping people understand the information in a useful way.

For example, nutrition resources will sometimes use a hand as a reference for appropriate food portions. This might not be as accurate as measuring food, it’s definitely an accessible reference for most people.

This image is a colored illustration. At the center is a plate divided into four sections. The top left section reads "A serving of protein: 1 palm." The top right section reads "A serving of vegetables: 1 fist." The bottom right section reads "A serving of fats: 1 thumb." The bottom left section reads "A serving of carbs: 1 cupped hand." Next to each section, there is a hand making the shape described.
Image from Verywell Fit

Provide estimates when the idea is more important than the stats

Exact numbers might be helpful in your work, but are they useful for your audience? We can often accidentally overwhelm or confuse people in an effort to be precise. When trying to decide if an estimate is appropriate, go back to our first question, “What specific information do I want people to take away from this?” If an estimate is enough to convey the main point, then use the simpler option.

Making numbers feel accessible is an important part of sharing information. When you tap into the why and connect to people’s lives, they’re much more likely to find meaning in the numbers.

To learn more about communicating with numbers, you can check out the recording and list of resources from our June webinar Let’s Talk Numbers.

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