The gist: Eighty quadrillion BTUs, 28 million tons of carbon, 3.5 million kilowatt hours, 50 percent efficiency increase, 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050… Huh? Exactly. These are numbers we’re hearing all the time when it comes to climate solutions. But alone, numbers often fail to paint vivid pictures in our heads. Unless numbers are hitched to a story they are unlikely to mean much to our audience.

What does this mean for people who use data regularly in their work? It means that we must think more strategically about how we present numbers, placing them in a down-to-earth, real-life context.

What’s the matter with numbers?

Nothing! We love numbers. But by themselves they don’t get the job done. Here’s why:

  • Numbers and data alone often fail to create vivid pictures in our heads—concrete images are key to relating numbers to peoples’ lives and make them memorable.
  • Often it’s difficult to judge the size or meaning of numbers; we need cues and familiar, concrete comparisons.
  • Without a story, your data can be misinterpreted in a way that counters the message you’re trying to get across.
  • Once a certain perspective is established in our minds, it will trump the data—even making us deaf and blind to new numbers. In other words, unless we tell a “sticky” story with our numbers, some other default story that might not fit our message will kick in.

Three tips for making your numbers count:

1. Hitch numbers to a story—paint a vivid picture, then back it up
2. Illustrate solutions rather than focusing only on the size of a problem
3. Become a “social math” whiz—relate to what’s familiar and concrete

Details and examples

1. Hitch numbers to a story – paint a vivid picture, then back it up

Unless numbers are married to a story, they are unlikely to mean much to our audiences. Without the story—or meaning—up front, people automatically default to pictures they already have in their heads. For example, conservation might look like sacrifice and deprivation—unless we supply a picture of cost savings, new clean energy jobs, and exciting new efficiency technologies. Painting a new picture helps loosen the strangle-hold of preconceptions. Here’s how New York mayor Michael Bloomberg sets up his audience to be receptive to numbers he’ll talk about later in his speech:

Green energy is going to be the oil gusher of the 21st century, and if we’re going to remain the world’s economic superpower, we’ve got to be the pioneers – just as America always has been.

Another example:

On average, our food is traveling over 1500 miles before it gets to our plates – the distance from Seattle to Chicago. Long distance travel decreases food’s nutritional value, wastes valuable energy in shipping and storage, and undermines the economic strength of our local family farms.

There’s a complete story here: Our food is the main character, making a long journey across the country. The nutritional and environmental costs inherent in the food system are underlined while at the same time the importance of our community’s connection (or lack thereof) to local farms is reinforced.

With most schools selling snacks, candy, and pop, they are more like a convenience stores than environments to learn about healthy eating.

With just a few words, a clear picture is formed. No one wants their kids hanging out at a convenience store all day, eating junk food.

2. Illustrate solutions with data rather than focusing only on the size of a problem

Too often, numbers are used to tell one story: Crisis.

Instead, try painting a picture of viable solution and back it up with data. Climate solutions are bold but incremental: Eighty percent by 2050 means reducing pollution by 2 percentage points a year.

More often than not, we use numbers as evidence that there’s a big problem. Unfortunately, research shows that this kind of crisis message actually disengages people from collective solutions and focuses them on personal survival or adaptation—especially when it comes to issues like climate change or health care. If the problem seems too big to fix (and this is the story big numbers usually suggest), we shut down. Solutions seem too small to make a dent and our message reinforces a sense of futility.

This example isn’t so good:

Replace 3 frequently used light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Save 300 lbs. of carbon dioxide and $60 per year.

Here’s why: The focus is on individual action—and if we’re talking about global climate change, the impact might seem too small for the scale of the problem. Also, most of us don’t know what 300 lbs of CO2 really is – a lot or a little? It might not seem like enough to matter. One thing that does work here is showing real-life cost savings.

This is better:

Lots of energy goes to waste in office buildings each night with computers and lights left on while the city sleeps. Lights Out San Francisco – an event organized to illustrate an easy cost-cutting climate solution – estimated that turning lights out in San Francisco for even one hour could save as much as 15 percent of the energy consumed on an average Saturday night. During a similar event in Sydney, Australia, 2.2 million people participated. One hour of lights out meant that the atmosphere was spared 24.86 tons of carbon dioxide – three times the amount an average American produces in an entire year (or 48,613 cars driving for one hour). Think of how much we could save if we turned out the lights more often—or better yet, if systems were in place to automatically shut off unnecessary lights in entire cities.

Solutions first.

The alternative is to use numbers to tell stories of solutions: Solutions exist, they have proven effective, government can play a role, and the problem can be addressed incrementally. Maybe your story is a “David and Goliath” tale where smart solutions defeat a giant adversary. Maybe your story is a “Little Engine that Could” story—one about ingenuity and determination triumphing over “Big Problem.” Numbers are the supporting documentation for your story.

A good example:

Closing Washington State’s one and only coal-fired power plant would reduce the state’s emissions by over 10 million metric tons per year enough to meet Washington’s 2020 climate goals in one smart move.

3. Become a “social math” whiz – relate data to what’s familiar and concrete

“Social math” unifies the narrative and the numbers—bringing them down to earth. What’s social math? It’s a technique pioneered by the Institute for Sustainable Communities and the Berkeley Media Studies Group that brings numbers down to earth by blending them with compelling stories and by providing comparisons with familiar things. It works by analogy.

One less coal plant is like cutting 40 percent of Washington’s vehicle emissions. That amounts to all the cars and trucks in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane plus the 25 next largest cities in the state, combined.

In other words, social math can reinforce your message by 1) connecting two or more things together; 2) comparing the size of things; or 3) functioning as a metaphor.

Here are some more examples:

A display table showed one packet of birth control next to its $36 equivalent in food198 packages of Top Ramen noodles. The display was meant to drive home the choice college studentsand uninsured women were being forced to make.

This is pretty good, a great visual image and good illustration of the choices real people face: prescription drugs or food although the choice of Top Ramen (some of the cheapest food around) might undermine the argument.

Community residents near a gasoline refinery noted that the plant emits 6 tons of pollutants per day—that’s 25 balloons full of toxic pollution for each school child in the town.

This is effective because it provides a tangible illustration of a big number. Six tons is abstract. Balloons are familiar. Even better, this is a narrative that connects the problem to the issue—health—and to the people affected—children.

Cascadians’ gasoline use declined approximately one-tenth from 1999 to 2006roughly the same as if every Northwest motorist took a one-month holiday from driving each year.

Here’s another one:

If every person in the U.S. were to change their page margins from 1.25 to .75, we would save a forest around the size of Rhode Island each year.

A caution: Social math can backfire if you don’t link the story and the visual comparisons to the message you want to convey. Numbers can be presented in a memorable way but cause the opposite intended reaction in your audience. Here’s an example that seems pretty good, but may defeat the message:

Most people in Africa support their entire families on the equivalent of what Americans spend on pet food.

Compelling, yes. Narrative, yes. A familiar comparison, yes. But, unfortunately, this tactic creates a situation where audiences are asked to choose between the pets they love and people far away. The social math sets up a false choice that people don’t want to make. Your social math should map numbers to the key points of your message and to your core values.

Part of this checklist was adapted from an article by Susan Nall Bales of the Frameworks Institute. Check out the Frameworks Institute website for excellent resources on numbers and social math.

December 4, 2007