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The Bottom Line

    When Talking About Numbers is Speaking a Foreign Language

    Guest author Barry Gardner offers his take on the book Making Numbers Count, including tips for district administrators to help stakeholders better understand large numbers. 

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    When my copy of Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr arrived, the numbers geek inside of me was skipping around the house with excitement to dive into the book. However, when you spend time inside this excellent book, you quickly find out it is not about the numbers themselves. It is about the story they tell—or, actually, don’t tell. 


    Making Numbers Count: A Short Review

    The premise behind Making Numbers Count is that most people have a hard time understanding numbers. Heath and Starr explain that once you get beyond the number five, we as humans don’t have tools for comprehending these numbers, and without a connection to the human experience, they are lost on most of us. Basically, we begin speaking a foreign language to large parts of our audience when we present numbers or data sets. 


    If people truly do not understand large numbers and we are effectively speaking to them in another language, then what information are they taking away from our message? According to Heath and Starr, potentially nothing! Ugh! All that work trying to come up with great slideshows and graphs to show how we spend the millions of dollars that flow through our district, and most people can’t comprehend what one million really represents. 


    Sometimes with a group of administrators, I would use a colorful line I stole from the movie “For the Love of the Game” with Kevin Costner. Costner’s baseball teammate finds him asleep in bed one morning with mini-bottles from the hotel fridge lined up on the dresser. Costner’s teammate quips: “Chappy, a lot of little bottles make a big bottle!” I used this to bring life to the idea that small purchases can add up quickly to a big cost for the district and we must be aware of those as much as large purchases. 


    Heath and Staff take a much more sophisticated approach to their book than my one-liner from a movie. They offer many different strategies and approaches for creating a human connection to numbers that helps the person receiving the information build a stronger understanding. For example, instead of stating, “The roof on our district’s high school is 1,000,000 square feet,” they might restate as, “Our high school’s roof is the size of about 20 football fields.” 


    Most people may not have an idea of what 1,000,000 square feet looks like, but they may have a better idea of what a football field looks like and begin to comprehend the size knowing it covers 20 football fields. Another translation would be to state the high school has the roof coverage of 500 residential homes or by naming two housing subdivisions in your district. These examples provide a more human connection that allows individuals to better understand and grasp the number you are trying to communicate. 


    Takeaways for District Administrators

    So what does this mean for school officials?


    Regardless of what area of education you are involved in, you probably work with large sets of numbers—whether they are test scores, student demographics, miles driven by buses, or district finances. And you will likely want to use these numbers to tell a story about your district that conveys important messages to your community. So what can we do as district leaders to help people comprehend large numbers?


    Here are five steps laid out in Making Numbers Count that can help you communicate with your stakeholders. 


    1. Try Not to Use Numbers

    As counterintuitive as this may sound, the authors point out in their book that people distance themselves from our presentations when they don’t “get” a number. Instead, try to relate your number to something that your audience can understand, like the size of a football field or by turning “20%” into “2 out of 10 people in this room.” Heath and Starr offer lots of examples that can help you get started!


    2. Connect with the Human Side

    If individuals truly struggle to understand the numbers we present, we must then figure out how to relay the importance of our message. Heath and Starr use the example of tumor size. Doctors do not speak in centimeters when talking to a patient—they compare the size of the tumor to a grape or golf ball. This builds intuition and helps people understand the size of a tumor in a way that "three centimeters" never would.


    3. Have Your Audience in Mind

    When making these comparisons to help your audience grasp the meaning behind large numbers, tailor the examples to play to your specific audience. In other words, ground your examples in terms that are familiar. I’m a big baseball fan, but if I began trying to reference numbers to a batting average to a group of people that had never watched a game before, my message would fall flat. Take the time to strategically think of comparisons that will easily resonate with your audience.


    4. Review Your Documents

    This was a statement in the book I took to heart. I literally went back to my current presentation to find each number and see if I had a phrase to translate the number to my audience. To be honest, it was hit and miss on my part. In the future, I will continue to review my work through this lens.


    5. This Will Take Practice

    Heath and Starr give a plethora of examples of translating numbers in their book. School leaders may not be practiced in creating these types of comparisons and reference points to explain statistics, data, and amounts. It will take time, practice, and collaboration to create meaningful communication strategies for your numbers. However, the impact it could have might be the difference between your stakeholders truly understanding your vision or simply shaking their heads while following along. 



    No matter the position you serve in education—whether you are the Superintendent or a classroom teacher—this book is a worthwhile read. It will challenge you to examine how well you have been communicating numbers and give you strategies to improve. As educators, we serve as messengers of so much information and it’s imperative to help our stakeholders see the tremendous work that we do. It would be a shame to have them walk away unaware of the truly special things we are doing because we are simply speaking another language.

    Barry Gardner

    Barry Gardner has served as a school business official for the past 7 years, most recently as the Chief Financial Officer for MSD Wayne Township. While serving in school finance, Barry has been a leader in the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, serving as a Region Director for the association.   Barry is currently enrolled as a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Indiana University Bloomington.