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.

Communicate to Influence…

…write to inform.

Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.) If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the presentation and send in a report.

– Seth Godin

I’m headed to Atlanta GA today for the 2012 Worship Facilities Expo (WFX). I have been very fortunate and honored to have been a part of every WFX since it began in Nashville TN in 2005. Because WFX held two events in some years, this will be the 10th time I have made a presentation (or two – or three) at the event.

I would like to think I’ve come a long way in my communication style.

When I look back at that first presentation, I cringe. Not because of the topic or content – it was well received. I just remember it being a very dense verbal communication that was all one way – a classic data dump. Coupled with my rapid-fire delivery, (I was born in Nashville TN, but must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle set at 78 rpm. Note – anyone under 30 reading this will have to check Wikipedia for the scoop on that) I’m surprised the audience remained upright.

But they did (I actually have proof – two of the participants that day were on the leadership team at Alliance Bible Fellowship, and we started a conversation that day that eventually led the church to pick me and my company (at the time) for a $5.6 million dollar, multi-phase construction project that is in its third phase at this writing). But I digress.

Our brains have two sides – an emotional right side and a logical left side. When you show up to speak to an audience, you can be sure they are showing up with both sides of their brains ready to be engaged. If you aren’t aware of the way you talk, the way you dress, your body language, and by the way, your content, you may be tuned out by the second slide of your PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi.

You can wreck a communication process with lousy logic or unsupported facts, but you can’t complete it without emotion. Logic is not enough.

According to Seth Godin, a home run presentation is easy to describe: You put up a slide. It triggers an emotional reaction in the audience. They sit up and want to know what you’re going to say that fits with that image. Then, if you do it right, every time they think of what you said, they’ll see that image (and vice versa).

A presentation isn’t an obligation – it’s a privilege.

If you’re in Atlanta attending WFX, drop in on one of my presentations Wednesday 9/19 at 11 AM (The Servant Blueprint) in A313 or 3 PM (Selling Change) in A314.

As Andy Stanly says, I’d love the chance to challenge your mind in order to change your life.

From Information to Influence

Jack Ryan, the historian-CIA-politician hero from author Tom Clancy’s fiction writings of the 1990s is always good for a quote:

Next time Jack, write a #@$!! memo!

He muttered this to himself as he was being lowered in a raging storm from a helicopter to a submarine, on the way to averting WWIII. His research led to an astounding discovery, but it was his willingness in presenting the information first-hand that led to the quote above. It may make for good summertime reading and an action movie, but there is actually an instructive lesson in it for anyone who seeks to become a better communicator.

The written medium is a cognitive, linear, literal, and didactic process that’s great for transferring information.

Speaking is the medium of action and influence. In speaking, we create an experience where people get us and our message together – and the two are inseparable. In speaking, we use information to influence. The power is in the presentation.

The two previous paragraphs come from Bert Decker’s book “You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard.” Whenever I’m working on major presentations I always find myself coming back for a refresher course.

This week I’ll be posting excerpts from this book along with observations for ChurchWorld.