Writing about numbers? Here's how to hook readers—even lifelong numberphobes
Updated: May 18, 2022
Help me plan a party!
I need to work on the seating arrangement. There are ten guests, so brainstorm a few ideas for how I should place their chairs around the ballroom.
Great! I bet you've got a strong handful of layouts in mind.
Now, come up with the best way to set up 1,000 chairs. And do it quickly.
That's a bit more challenging, isn't it?
It’s pretty easy to picture how you'd place ten seats in a room. But it's a lot more difficult to visualize 1,000 chairs.
To acquire an accurate frame of reference, most of us would need to start by sketching out a diagram.
But when you're using a lot of numbers in your web copy or in articles, the last thing you want is for your reader to have to hunt down a pen, paper, and calculator in order to understand what you're talking about. Don't assign homework!
Too many numbers cause most reader's eyes to roll immediately back into their heads. They make a lot of us dash off for a weighted blanket and the nearest bin of Häagen-Dazs. Still, most companies insist on squeezing and squelching as many numbers as they can into blog articles, product descriptions, and general website copy.
But you, you're different. You don't want to scare off your readers—you want to create a lasting relationship with them. So when you're creating content that involves lots of numbers or other nitty-gritty data, use these tips and tricks to keep your readers engaged.
In mathematics, time, distance, space, capacity, weight, or even price, are communicated using an agreed-upon and fixed set of numerical units. We all know them as numbers.
Sounds easy, right? 1 is 1, and 2 is 2.
But there are actually countless ways to communicate a single number. While a number or unit might be exact, there is a myriad of ways to convey their meaning in words and visuals that matter to your customer. The easier you make it for someone to interpret your number-based features, the easier it will be for them to understand what it means to their experience and ultimately, why they need your product or service.
Use totems to make numbers easier to understand
As numbers grow even larger, we tend to play more with totems. Totems are these little brain games to bring numbers down to a reasonable size. "Our cognitive systems are very much tied to our perceptions," said Daniel Ansari, a researcher at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Western University in Canada. "The main obstacle is that we're dealing with numbers that are too large for us to have experienced perceptually."
That’s why we say things like, “the Empire State Building is 2,000 No.2 pencils tall,” or, “the Golden Gate Bridge is the length of 30 football fields.”
It’s why politicians love to tell us that a new spending bill will only cost us “one less Starbucks coffee per week.” By inserting these totems, we are able to give a handy frame of reference to help readers better visualize increasingly large numbers.
Morongo, a casino and resort—maybe near-ish to Palm Springs?—perhaps I’ve seen it on the way to Vegas?—is located in a relatively unknown city in Southern California. They ran a popular, local television commercial not too long ago, providing a taste of the casino razzle-dazzle.
They didn’t say “located in Cabazon, CA” (where is that?), Or “94 miles from Downtown Los Angeles” (I’m sorry, almost 100 miles?!).
Instead, Morongo broke it down a different way. The casino was “less than 90 minutes from wherever you are!” They transformed an ambiguous ‘distance’ into the more compelling ‘time’ to better illustrate how the drive to have fun could be quick and convenient.
A study by Cornell University demonstrated that 68% of people believed information that was presented in pure words or numbers, but 97% believed a number if it was paired with a visualization tool. By providing customers with a visual, or ‘totem,’ you’re able to give more meaning to your numerically-based product features.
83.4 million people traveled through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2018. This can be described as the rough population of Germany, or 10 of those busy, bustling New York Citys!
Another example? It takes about 330 minutes to get from Los Angeles to New York City by flight.
Let's say you invented a new, revolutionary way to fly that could get passengers across the country in only 30 minutes. We talk a lot about ways to convert dry, -er words (faster, smaller, more efficient) into more tangible benefits that people care about. Simply saying your product is faster, 30% faster, or 900% faster doesn’t immediately resonate.
You could say it is ‘the fastest’ or ‘900% faster,’ but this doesn’t provide a totem as to what this speed really means. You could say:
The time it takes you to commute to work
Get there faster than you can drive to the Santa Monica Pier
You’ll be in New York before dinner is even ready!
Intel does this well. They don’t just list their Core Processors as “fast,” but they provide a frame of reference to illustrate the speed of their latest models.
A clear example: Editing 4K videos used to take about 6 minutes, but you can now get the same job done in under a single minute. They break down what ’10.5X faster’ really means to their target customer.
What are some other examples of how we can convert numerical units into concepts customers can visualize?
VLT is used to measure the percentage of light that can penetrate a lens. Lenses with a lower VLT have a darker tint and are ideal for bright conditions. In comparison, lenses with a higher VLT have a lighter tint better for low-light conditions.
Some sunglass and goggle companies list lens VLT and expect the customer to sort the differences. Goggle manufacturer ROKA has 10 different lens tints and instead provides visuals for each model's ideal conditions.
For example, Light Vermilion is “great for low light, green backdrops, enhances orange and red buoys,” or Jade Mirror is ideal for “direct sun, enhances yellow and orange buoys.” Additionally, the images they use aren’t just any old stock photography—they’re effective totems. They are shots of popular swim courses easily recognizable by their target market of triathletes. This provides meaning to the unit of VLT.
Command: Convert Weight into Everyday Objects
If you’ve ever strolled around the home improvement department at Target, you’ve likely come across the long aisle of Command strips.
These adhesive-backed hooks are primed and ready to hang just about anything, each with a unique weight capacity.
Instead of saying the Jumbo Utility Hooks can hold up to 7.5 lbs, Command converts weight into everyday objects. The Jumbo Utility Hook can hold a standard bag of coffee beans, while the Small Utility Hook can hold a gallon of milk. This totem gives us an immediate understanding of what the weight rating means for us.
An innovator in aerodynamic equipment for triathlon bicycles has an endless list of numbers and units to describe their equipment. After all, the company is run by cycling intelligentsia and need-for-speed engineers.
One of their most popular products, the Torpedo, is an outstandingly aerodynamic water bottle with a 750mL capacity. IIt conveniently sits between the aerobars—an apparatus extending out in front of your traditional bicycle handlebars. It allows you to lean forward and achieve a time-saving position during a triathlon.
They could artlessly list the bottle's capacity on a long spec sheet as a bland “750mL water bottle.”
Consumers could skim… skim… skim… a tech-heavy spec sheet and completely gloss over why that precise capacity is so vital to their overall performance.
Instead, XLAB explains why they specifically designed the bottle to be 750mL. They remind their target market (triathletes) that they are handed refresher bottles from various aid stations along the course along the bike portion of the race. The Torpedo Bottle is purposely designed to fit the precise aid station bottles triathletes are handed along the way, and therefore, the bottle will not overflow or underfill when hydration is crucially needed.
If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel: Mind Tricks for Inconceivable Numbers
What happens when you are attempting to represent a number far, far outside the human brain's capacity to understand? An example comes by way of something we are all well aware of, but very few of us can properly visualize.
We all live together on our beloved 24,901 mile-around planet Earth, roughly 92,960,000 million miles away from the burning hot star that gives us life: the sun. While these units are commonly accepted—you might even have those distances memorized—they are incredibly jarring and difficult for the brain to conceptualize.
This beautifully designed, “tediously accurate” interactive scale model of our solar system helps convert these insurmountably large numbers into smaller ones easier for our brains to digest.
Our epic journey through space begins by showing the moon scaled down to a single pixel. The planets and distances we encounter along the way are all drawn in relation to that one pixel. Elegantly, we casually scroll through the darkened void, soaring through dozens of blank screens between planetary pitstops, ultimately giving our brain a more conceivable framework for this colossal scale.
Think of the numbers you use to describe your product or service’s top features. Are they empty of meaning and in need of a visualization totem? How can you infuse more context using the handy examples?