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Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers – Chip Heath & Karla Starr

by Venky

I personally have an incorrigible phobia towards Mathematics. This paranoia reached its zenith during my primary and high school days. Prior to the onset of every Mathematics examination, I used to be racked by a blazing bout of fever. The doctor attributed it to an innate psychological dread of numbers. The moment the completion bell sounded, and the answer sheets were collected by the invigilator, I would get back to being as bright as a button! Perhaps if my Mathematics teacher has explained the art behind numbers, in a similar vein as what Chip Heath and Karla Starr do in their arresting book, “Making Numbers Count”, maybe I would have inculcated a love towards the subject.

As the authors point out at the beginning of their wonderfully engaging book, the higher the numbers and their enormity, less the sensitivities associated with them. Termed “psychological numbing”, this phenomenon literally overwhelms a person for whom numbers are what the rays of the sun are to a vampire. This fear of numbers may be overcome, if they are, according to Heath and Starr ‘translated into precisely simplistic terms. Two scientists working for Microsoft, embarked on exactly such a venture. Striving for the better part of a decade, Jake Hofman and Dan Goldstein created the “Perspective Engine.” The Perspective Engine represented a set of tools that would supplement numbers with some contextual phrases.

Consider this example. A minuscule percentage of CEOs employed in Fortune 500 companies are women. This sentence, even though highlighting the massive gender disparity and discrimination in the corporate world does not invest enough perspective in the reader to grasp the ‘gender schism’ in the work force. However, The New York Times in 2018 tried to put this fact into a clearer perspective. “Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women.” Just read this whopping sentence once again, slowly, calmly and coolly. This ingenious example astounds the reader with its implication.

Another technique proffered by Heath and Starr is to take things “1” at a time. Sometimes condensing numbers into their smallest unit would broaden the horizon of absorption. For example, instead of exclaiming that “there are about 400 million civilian owned firearms in the United States”, try recasting the fact thus: “there are about 330 million citizens in the United States, and more than 400 million firearms…or enough for every man, woman, and child to own 1, and still have around 70 million firearms left.” The fact that the US is capable of arming every man, woman and child with a dangerous weapon and still have enough left to arm a population equivalent to 12 Singapores! A fact enough to keep the mind racing on the 2nd Amendment and the need for gun control.

The book is replete with similar easy to remember and implementable examples. The authors urge their readers to adopt a user friendly attitude while explaining facts involving numbers, so that there is no death by data (my own interpretation). Instead of statistically holding forth on the fact that 40% of the adults in the United States do not always wash their hands after a visit to the rest room, just try telling your listeners that 2 out of every 5 people they shake hands with may not have washed their hands in the interval between using the washroom and shaking hands. This will either send your shell shocked listeners making a dash to the nearest pharmacy for a hand sanitizer!

The authors also argue for the principle of ‘scale’ to be kept in mind while grappling with numbers. Instead of waxing eloquent over the geographical size of Ireland by proudly stating that the country possesses an area of approximately 70,000 square kilometers, just state in a very prolix and matter of fact way that Ireland is half the size of New York State (it’s not so big after all, Ireland that is). If you are intending to bring home the devastating impact of the wildfires that ravaged the Australian continent in 2020, you have two options in which to bring home the terrible facts:

“The 2020 Australian wildfires destroyed an estimated 46 million acres, or 186,000 square kilometres”


“The 2020 Australian wildfires destroyed an area: ½ the size of Japan; as large as Syria; 1.5 times larger than the United Kingdom; twice the size of Portugal; the size of Washington State and as large as New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont).

My favourite part of the book is where the authors exhort the employ of “vividity” to breathe life into numbers. They do this with a unique reference to a hummingbird. Hummingbirds are about 3 grams in weight and the birds consume just about 3-7 calories a day. This makes their metabolism almost 50 times faster than any human being. This fact looks jumbled and little bit hard to absorb. So the Heath and Starr reword it this way: “A hummingbird’s metabolism is so fast that, if it were the size of an average adult male, it would need to consume slightly more than a Coke every waking minute – 67 Cokes an hour, for 16 hours a day”. Just dwell on this astonishing fact for a couple of minutes!

“Making Numbers Count” is a joy to read from both a knowledge outlook as well as from the point of view of developing and honing a technique that would be of utilitarian value in unraveling the myth, mysteries and mystique behind numbers that otherwise may read esoteric and sound daunting.

Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and is tasked with teaching courses on business strategy and organizations and is a best-selling author of many books, most of which are co-written with his brother Dan. Karla Starr is the recipient of a Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists and is a contributor for The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian and the LA Times. Both these formidable personalities bring to bear their entire gamut of experience and dish out a veritable treat in the form of this book.

Making Numbers Count – Mathematics made memorable!

(Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath & Karla Starr is published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, and would be available from the 11th of January 2022)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!!

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