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.
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:
What specific information do I want people to take away from this?
Why does my audience need to know this information?
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.
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.
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.