“Know your numbers” – was something my last boss drummed in to her top team. And it stayed with me, commercially speaking. But it’s also critical in the content we create to tell our clients’ stories and help them engage with customers.
In our Copy-wise series we write a lot about style, grammar and various linguistic do’s and don’ts. Which is cool. But being writers and editors doesn’t mean we neglect numbers. Get those wrong and you lose just as much credibility.
Two examples show this. (You know I love the ‘two examples’ approach.)
Back in the days of dot-com boom I happened to be at a conference with a colleague, a reporter who shared a beat area with me. The area we covered was financial technology and it was rare for us to be covering the same event. Anyway, we heard the same words from the same people up on a stage.
In one case the person speaking was the head of technology at a big financial company. He described one of his departments having a budget of “$200 billion”. To stress the quotation, that wasn’t revenue (which would be a stretch for all but a handful of companies that have ever existed). It was budget. For an IT department.
To me and others, it was obvious the guy misspoke. He had meant to say “$200 million”. But my colleague at the time was adamant about reporting the words he had said. She couldn’t eyeball (earball?) that being out by a factor 1,000x (billion versus million) was a problem.
In all matters, numbers can be eyeballed. In fact, being good at that is a way of unearthing valuable data and telling great data-led stories. It’s a skill most companies need to develop.
My second example is something more prosaic but we see it all the time when writers are referring to research, economic data and more.
Say you are reporting a fall from 40 per cent of people in your company travelling for business to only 30 per cent of people doing so. Some people will say the number has “fallen by 10 per cent”. It hasn’t. A 10 per cent fall would put the new number at 36 per cent (10 per cent of 40 percent is 4 per cent).
What we all need to say is that “the number of people flying for business fell 10 percentage points”.
This is really important. Whole strategies are screwed up with such loose talk. And customer-facing content is torpedoed by the wrong language.
These two examples are really at macro and micro levels. One calls on us to eyeball numbers that just don’t feel right and challenge them. The other is about detail and precision in how we talk about data.
They’re both important. Being innumerate is just as bad as being illiterate.
Our advice is to check numbers. In the case of the $200 billion IT department, we checked with the speaker later that day and made sure it was a slip up and that he meant $200 million. In the case of written reports based on data, get several people to check the precision.
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