Optimize your presentation of numbers: for a reader, absorbing the numbers contained in a piece of writing can be significantly harder than absorbing the words. Here are several strategies that can not only make the numbers in your text less numbing, but also maximize the chance that the reader will get the message that you wish to convey with those numbers

Citation metadata

Author: Beth Ellen Roberts
Date: Oct. 2006
From: Chemical Engineering(Vol. 113, Issue 10)
Publisher: Access Intelligence, LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,190 words

Main content

Article Preview :

Everyone knows that engineers are good with numbers. We can measure, calculate, tabulate, and report results accurately. But after you take pains to get the numbers right in your reports, sales brochures, or capital expenditure requests, readers in many cases misread, misinterpret, or just plain miss the figures that you want them to understand.

Fortunately, several techniques are available to help us to present numbers accurately and persuasively. By adopting these techniques, we can make sure that readers see the numbers we want them to see, and that the numbers will have the effects we desire.

Illuminating the numbers

Be aware of the fact that readers do not process numbers the same way that they process recognizable words. Numbers embedded in text can cause readers' eyes to glaze over. Sure, a careful reader will find all of the necessary information; but let's face it, when your boss is skimming over all of your reports before your annual performance review, you want to make sure that the important numbers stand out. One key to achieving this goal is to use strategic positioning.

For instance, in the following paragraph, the number that writer most wants the reader to see--the amount of savings--is unfortunately buried in the middle:

The new predictive-maintenance software, which can be purchased for $2,750, will help reduce bearing failures by 3% per year. We currently experience an average of 483 failures per year at $1,569 per failure, or $757,827, so a reduction of 3% means 15 fewer failures or a savings of $23,535 per year. The budget includes $10,000 for new software, and so far we have spent only $539, so we have adequate resources to purchase licenses for all three sites. Training costs for the software will be absorbed by the individual units.

Repositioning the number can help ensure that the reader will give it priority. The most visible positions are at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs. Numbers in the middle of a paragraph do not get much attention, so consider breaking up the text into small portions. You might think of this strategy as increasing the surface area of the paragraphs, to allow for greater contact with the reader.

The ultimate way to maximize the attention a reader pays to a particular number is to place that number in a single sentence by itself, as in the first paragraph in the revision below. On the other hand, to suppress attention paid to an unimpressive number (like the 3% reduction in failures), you can place it in the middle of a paragraph surrounded by other numbers, as in the second paragraph below:

The new predictive maintenance software can save the company $23,535 per year by reducing bearing failures.

We currently lose $757,827 to bearing failures based on an average of 483 failures per year, at an average $1,569 per failure. The software will help reduce failures by 3% per year. Failures should fall from an average 483 to 468, so the savings would be 15 x $1,569....

Source Citation

Source Citation
Roberts, Beth Ellen. "Optimize your presentation of numbers: for a reader, absorbing the numbers contained in a piece of writing can be significantly harder than absorbing the words. Here are several strategies that can not only make the numbers in your text less numbing, but also maximize the chance that the reader will get the message that you wish to convey with those numbers." Chemical Engineering, vol. 113, no. 10, Oct. 2006, pp. 59+. Accessed 1 Dec. 2022.
  

Gale Document Number: GALE|A153188226