There’s a great book every copywriter and planner should read: ‘Making Numbers Count’ by Chip Heath and Karla Starr.
It’s all about communication that stands out and is memorable, and it’s packed full of great examples.
The main thing is the context our message will be received in.
It shouldn’t arrive as sterile abstract data, but as something that sticks in the mind.
For instance, a bland statistic has no real impact:
“28% of UK men don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom at work.”
But supposing we make that relevant to the person listening or reading:
I in every 4 men you shake hands with at work won’t wash their hands after using the toilet.
Now it’s relevant, now we have to think how we feel about touching the hand of someone who’s just touched their own private parts, is it hygienic?
It doesn’t have to be long copy or a lecture, just a relevant context for comparison.
For instance, here’s a bland fact:
“There are 400 million firearms in the USA.”
That might sound like a lot, but at present it’s just numbers, data.
How about putting it in context:
There are enough firearms in America for every man, woman, and child to own one and still have 70 million left over.
That comparison gives the numbers scale that makes us sit up and take notice.
Sometimes numbers alone are actually confusing, here’s some data about interviews:
“34% of white applicants and 14% of black applicants without records received call-backs, compared to 17% and 5% with records.”
But if we do our job, we should be translating those numbers into a powerful fact:
White job applicants who had served jail time for a felony were more likely to receive a call-back than black applicants with impeccable records.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”.
Rhetoric is our job, take a simple bland fact:
“A very small percentage of Fortune 500 companies are women.”
They use Aristotle’s rhetoric to turn that into something impactful and memorable:
Among Fortune 500 companies, there are more men named James than there are women.
Simple numbers may have some use as a slide in a Power-Point presentation, among people whose job is numbers, for instance:
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers 1.6 million square kilometres.”
But numbers just wash over ordinary people, they have no comparison, nothing to judge it by, they need a mnemonic:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 3 times the size of Spain
Even the most complicated things can be put into language that makes sense to ordinary people, take the speed of light and the speed of sound:
“Light travels 186,000 miles per second. Sound travels 760 miles per hour.”
On its own that’s just an abstract concept, we hear it and forget it.
But put the same fact into language we can understand:
If you watched a firework display at midnight on New Year’s Eve and the light took 10 seconds to get to you, the sound wouldn’t arrive until April 12th.
Similarly, it’s possible to give anything we advertise impact like that, even a lightbulb.
For instance: “A CFL lightbulb last 7 years.”
On its own that sounds okay, but does it justify the higher cost, who knows?
But now express it like this:
If you buy a CFL lightbulb when your child is 8, you won’t need to replace it until she’s learning to drive a car.
Numbers and facts have no inherent meaning.
It’s up to us to give them meaning by giving them context.
Context will give them impact, and impact will make them memorable.
That’s why rhetoric is our job – sticky advertising.