How to Help Math-Lovers (and Math-Haters) Translate the Numbers That Animate Our World

We live in a world in which our success often depends on our ability to make numbers count.

There are some authors from which I will preorder their book without question. They demonstrate the rare ability to communicate concepts with ease, giving the reader just enough information to satisfy without being overly verbose. They present an intriguing concept, provide in-depth information, and make you wonder, “That’s simply brilliant.” And better yet, they provide solid application – ways to help you translate information into action.

Chip Heath is one of those.

Along with co-author Karla Starr, Heath’s new book Making Numbers Count arrived on my porch yesterday, and I eagerly consumed it overnight.

We lose information when we don’t translate numbers into instinctive human experiences.

Chip Heath & Karla Starr, Making Numbers Count

The subtitle, “The Art of Science of Communicating Numbers” is well-stated. Using four broad categories, the authors proceed to capture readers with stories, examples, and applications of how important numbers are in our everyday lives, and more importantly, how we can use them to communicate clearly to our audience – whether our family or organization-wide.

The categories are:

  • Translate everything, favor user-friendly numbers
  • To help people grasp your numbers, ground them in the familiar, concrete, and human scale
  • Use emotional numbers – surprising and meaningful – to move people to think and act differently
  • Build a scale model

In typical fashion, Heath provides footnotes that satisfy the curious and enough endnotes (31 pages!) to make even the most avid researcher approve.

How much bigger is a billion than a million?

Well, a million seconds is twelve days. A billion seconds is…thirty-two years.

Understanding numbers is essential—but humans aren’t built to understand them. Until very recently, most languages had no words for numbers greater than five—anything from six to infinity was known as “lots.” While the numbers in our world have gotten increasingly complex, our brains are stuck in the past. How can we translate millions and billions and milliseconds and nanometers into things we can comprehend and use?

Author Chip Heath has excelled at teaching others about making ideas stick and here, in Making Numbers Count, he outlines specific principles that reveal how to translate a number into our brain’s language. This book is filled with examples of extreme number makeovers, vivid before-and-after examples that take a dry number and present it in a way that people click in and say “Wow, now I get it!”

You will learn principles such as:

SIMPLE PERSPECTIVE CUES: researchers at Microsoft found that adding one simple comparison sentence doubled how accurately users estimated statistics like population and area of countries.
VIVIDNESS: get perspective on the size of a nucleus by imagining a bee in a cathedral, or a pea in a racetrack, which are easier to envision than “1/100,000th of the size of an atom.”
CONVERT TO A PROCESS: capitalize on our intuitive sense of time (5 gigabytes of music storage turns into “2 months of commutes, without repeating a song”).
EMOTIONAL MEASURING STICKS: frame the number in a way that people already care about (“that medical protocol would save twice as many women as curing breast cancer”).

Whether you’re interested in global problems like climate change, running a tech firm or a farm, or just explaining how many Cokes you’d have to drink if you burned calories like a hummingbird, this book will help math-lovers and math-haters alike translate the numbers that animate our world—allowing us to bring more data, more naturally, into decisions in our schools, our workplaces, and our society.

A clear, practical, first-of-its-kind guide to communicating and understanding numbers and data—from bestselling business author Chip Heath.

We believe in numbers not as background, not as decorations, but as central points, with profound stories to tell. We believe in numbers, deeply. We believe in making them count.

Chip Heath & Karla Starr

Part of a regular series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

During my elementary school years one of the things I looked forward to the most was the delivery of “My Weekly Reader,” a weekly educational magazine designed for children and containing news-based, current events.

It became a regular part of my love for reading, and helped develop my curiosity about the world around us.


Have You Watched Your “Game” Film Lately?

Working an an article for about the power of TNT (it’s probably not what you think), I was reminded of this post from a couple of years ago. Since we’re in the middle of football season this time of year, I thought it would be appropriate to bring it back again.

There are a few scenes in the movie “Remember the Titans” in which “game film” plays a critical role: the school’s math teacher breaks down an opponent’s plays; one coach’s daughter loves watching game film with her dad while the other coach’s daughter thinks it’s silly; by the final game the reluctant daughter has come around and joins her new friend watching the team’s film every week.

It’s a great film with lots of leadership lessons – one of which is the importance of leaders watching their own “game film.

Seeing the movie reminded me of a great article by Dan and Chip Heath (authors of Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive). Published in Fast Company magazine, it’s entitled “Watch the Game Film.” You really need to check out the whole article, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Football coaches use game film to spot things they’d never see in real time. They have an entire week to review a 60-minute game.
  • In the business world, every day is game day, and leaders don’t take the time to “study the film” of their activities. It’s unfortunate, because studying game film can yield unexpected results.
  • Doug Lemov, a consultant to school districts, utilized film of top-tier teachers in the classroom to train other teachers – resulting in raising students a grade level and a half in one year.
  • It doesn’t have to be film – Jump Associates, a strategy consulting firm, uses trained observers to record client meetings. After the meeting, the Jump staff holds a debriefing, modeled on the Army’s after-action reviews.

What insights might your team be overlooking because no one is observing carefully enough?

Maybe it’s time to press the PAUSE button and start screening some game film. There are some things you’ll never see unless you look.