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Making Numbers Count

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I am a fan of Chip Heath's work, so when Netgalley offered his new book, I was happy to get it. Heath has a way of sparking interest in even the most mundane topics, as evidenced in this title, and the fact that I still wanted to read it in my free time. Heath, along with Karla Starr, promotes the idea that context and precise examples can make normally vague or impossibly large numbers concrete and memorable. Using statistics and available research, Heath offers parallel interpretations that prove unforgettable. 

An example: 
Hummingbirds weigh about 3 grams and consume between 3 and 7 calories a day, making their metabolism nearly 50 times faster than humans. 
Stated in a new way: 
A hummingbird's metabolism is so fast that, if it were the size of an average adult male, it would need to consume slightly more than a Coke every waking minute—67 Cokes an hour, for 16 hours a day. 

I heartily agree, as Heath suggests, that "instead of feeling like we're reading a biology textbook, we're expanding our sense of wonder." This is just one example in what, for me, was a fascinating book.
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“Our brains process stories better than statistics.”

Such is the central point of authors Chip Heath and Karla Starr in Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, a book that both demonstrates why such is the case and how to overcome the problem.

It’s a point that’s frequently raised by students of communication and decision-making. It’s true: people have a hard time grasping numerical data. Also true: people are more attuned to narratives and the way these make them feel. Thus, it’s important to take extra care when presenting facts and figures, always bearing in mind that the most effective way to drive home any data-driven fact is to anchor this with a narrative that will connect with an audience because it translates the data into something meaningful to them.

It’s upon this latter point that Heath and Starr expound. “The secret to translating numbers is simple: avoid using them. Translate them into concrete, vivid, meaningful messages that are clear enough to make numbers unnecessary.” Or to put it differently, numbers (or data, if you will) are powerful only to the extent that people can relate to them. Their importance is rarely self-evident. Because dealing in data can be a dizzying proposition, it’s always important to frame these in such a way that they do not lose their human scale.

Heath and Starr offer numerous examples throughout the book of numbers/data/factoids that become more useful when placed in the proper context. The statement, for instance, that “The amount of meat recommended as part of a healthy meal is 3 to 4 ounces” is ironically vague in spite of the pinpoint figures because not everyone knows intuitively how much “3 to 4 ounces” is. But by simply qualify this specific measurement with “This looks about the same size as a deck of cards,” we add much more useful information that is at once intuitive and easier to grasp.

In a way, Making Numbers Count reads like a compendium of examples of how to “translate” numbers for an audience in this manner. Of course there are many ways to do this, all of which boil down to common-sizing a figure vis-a-vis something else with which an audience can better relate. “[W]e lose information when we don’t translate numbers into instinctive human experience,” Heath and Starr write, which is another way of saying that numbers by themselves are not going to win the hearts and minds of an audience.

However, it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t necessary to translate facts or figures or data like this each and every time they’re cited. That could be equally problematic. It might be said that Making Numbers Count also makes this point in reverse: there are so many examples of how to translate numbers “better” that by the end readers will question whether the effort to do so makes sense or not for a specific factoid. Sometimes the elegance of a statistic is in its simplicity, and jumping through hoops to translate each and every factoid becomes cumbersome.

“The world is a better place if we use numbers more often and more wisely,” opine Heath and Starr. “Counter to conventional practice, that probably won’t involve squeezing more digits on a page. In fact, it will often mean using fewer digits but with more impact.” Making Numbers Count makes a compelling argument why this should be the case.
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This book does so much to put numbers in perspective so you can understand the world we live in. Economics in particular can seem remote and meaningless because it is hard to find meaning in giant numbers--they are so intangible. This does the heavy lifting of making those connections.
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A smart, user-friendly manual for journalists, editors, PR people, social media managers - and everyone who wants to communicate effectively. Which means - most of us. As the authors put it in the introduction: we live in a world in which our success often depends on our ability to make numbers count.

The authors give many tips, techniques, and examples that will help us to present numbers in a clear and imaginative way. In a way it reminds me of Factfulness and I think that these two books make a good set.

Thanks to the publisher, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
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MAKING NUMBERS COUNT by Chip Heath and Karla Starr is all about "The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers." Kirkus sums up this text as follows: "Astute advice for business people and educators." The authors note that their book "is based on a simple observation: we lose information when we don't translate numbers into instinctive human experience." They offer over 30 possible translation techniques (e.g., use calendar time – like every day for almost 4 months instead of saying 112). Heath and Starr explain the value of visual comparisons – like a pack of cards instead of a 4 ounce portion or thinking of all the world's water as filling a gallon container (saltwater from the oceans) and three ice cubes (fresh water) with humans only able to drink the few drops melting off the cubes. Memorable, right? Other sections of the book suggest using emotional numbers and translating to a human scale. The examples go on and on, including the New York Times effort to convey the loss of human life to Covid-19 by posting the names and a small fact about just 1000 people -- still filling over 5 pages. Our Library collection has included numerous other texts by the Heath brothers (e.g., Switch; Decisive; Made to Stick; and The Power of Moments) and we will be adding MAKING NUMBERS COUNT soon.
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f you want to understand numbers from a human perspective, I highly recommend this book (granted, I’ll read any book the Heaths write; they can make anything interesting and relevant.)

Here’s a taste of how Chip Heath makes numbers count by putting them in terms we understand.

Instead of the dry statistic that a single M&M has 4 calories, or a single Pringle has 10 calories, think of it like this:

“In order to burn off the calories in a single M&M, you’d have to walk 2 flights of stairs. In order to burn off the calories in a single Pringle, you’d have to walk 176 yards, or almost 2 football fields.”

Or if you want to understand the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire, put it in a time framework:

“If a million seconds is twelve days, a billion seconds is thirty-two years.”

Making Numbers Count is full of ideas and examples of how we use numbers to make meaning in our lives, regardless of whether you consider yourself a numbers person or not. You will be after you read this book.

My thanks to NetGalley + Avid Reader Press for the review copy of this book.
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I just finished the latest Chip Heath (and Karla Starr) book, "Making Numbers Count". I loved the book. If you're a numbers person, you'll be dazzled . . . . and then disappointed.

The book has fascinating examples of how to better portray the relative value of numbers. Did you know 1 million seconds is only 12 days, but 1 billion seconds is 32 years. In this age when we throw around millions and billions, it's nice to put perspective on what these huge numbers actually represent in the real world.

Heath and Starr have loaded this book with great, practical tips on how to better present numbers to crowds or in the friendly discussion at the local coffee shop.

And then comes the disappointment. Poof. The book ends way too soon. There are massive footnotes at the end of the book, but the actual text ends way before you're done enjoying it.
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This is a fun, well-written book. As a how-to book on how to make numbers relatable, the advice given is excellent. There are practical examples for the points the authors make. The authors also demonstrate a great sense of humor. I recommend this book for anyone who has to present numerical data in an impactful way. Thank you to Netgalley and Avid Reader Press for the advance reader copy.
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Presenting numbers efficiently, making them clear and understandable, communicating them that they are appealing to your audience is a challenging skill to acquire. This book will give some very useful tips on how to improve in this area and become good at presenting numbers. This skill is useful regardless you are making a startup presentation or you are working in a corporate environment and your job is to express business situations through numbers.
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Now, this is a book that everyone who has to present numbers, statistics and data in one form or another should read.  And that is almost everybody. Numbers can be so persuasive whether at your workplace, school or home, or while arguing and debating among friends! Figures  have the power to change perspectives and decision making processes - but they have to be translated well.

I love the examples given by the authors on how this can be done. As someone who has always shut down when it comes to numbers, it’s fascinating and astounding how tweaking the data here and there and presenting it in a different and yet factual way can make all the difference in the world! The authors teach us the techniques in a most accessible way in this book.

I plan on doing a mindmap on the tips  before I forget them.  I’m pretty sure they will come in handy.

The notes at the back of the book will keep number-lovers very very happy and occupied for a long time.

You know what would make a great follow-up to this book. A book on how to make infographics from data. A picture translation of data will paint a thousand numbers.

All in all, Making Numbers Count is a must read for everyone who has to deal with numbers.
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Useful, Engaging, And Exceedingly Well Documented. As a software engineering professional who has a mathematics-related degree (Computer Science), very nearly got two others at the same time (Mathematics, Secondary Mathematics Education), spent a year in the middle school/ high school classroom, and who has been engaged in talking about politically-oriented numbers off and on for over a decade now... this is one helluva book. While I would have preferred fewer leftist-leaning number communication examples (attacks on "the 1%" and Jeff Bezos in particular are a common refrain), overall the points raised here are truly so spot-on, to the level that I personally can't think of any better or any way to really refute them. Further, the writing style here is very engaging and written in a style that can be read straight through, referred to as a common reference guide, or even taught in chapter form via an actual class itself. For those reading straight through, this is a very quick read due to both the book's overall brevity - barely 250 pages - and because of its exceedingly thorough documentation - clocking in at roughly 42% of the text of this Advanced Reader Copy. Very much recommended.
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I personally have an incorrigible phobia towards Mathematics. This paranoia reached its zenith during my primary and high school days. Prior to the onset of every Mathematics examination, I used to be racked by a blazing bout of fever. The doctor attributed it to an innate psychological dread of numbers. The moment the completion bell sounded, and the answer sheets were collected by the invigilator, I would get back to being as bright as a button! Perhaps if my Mathematics teacher has explained the art behind numbers, in a similar vein as what Chip Heath and Karla Starr do in their arresting book, “Making Numbers Count”, maybe I would have inculcated a love towards the subject. 

As the authors point out at the beginning of their wonderfully engaging book, the higher the numbers and their enormity, less the sensitivities associated with them. Termed “psychological numbing”, this phenomenon literally overwhelms a person for whom numbers are what the rays of the sun are to a vampire. This fear of numbers may be overcome, if they are, according to Heath and Starr ‘translated into precisely simplistic terms. Two scientists working for Microsoft, embarked on exactly such a venture. Striving for the better part of a decade, Jake Hofman and Dan Goldstein created the “Perspective Engine.” The Perspective Engine represented a set of tools that would supplement numbers with some contextual phrases. 

Consider this example. A minuscule percentage of CEOs employed in Fortune 500 companies are women. This sentence, even though highlighting the massive gender disparity and discrimination in the corporate world does not invest enough perspective in the reader to grasp the ‘gender schism’ in the work force. However, The New York Times in 2018 tried to put this fact into a clearer perspective. “Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women.” Just read this whopping sentence once again, slowly, calmly and coolly. This ingenious example astounds the reader with its implication. 

Another technique proffered by Heath and Starr is to take things “1” at a time. Sometimes condensing numbers into their smallest unit would broaden the horizon of absorption. For example, instead of exclaiming that “there are about 400 million civilian owned firearms in the United States”, try recasting the fact thus: “there are about 330 million citizens in the United States, and more than 400 million firearms…or enough for every man, woman, and child to own 1, and still have around 70 million firearms left.” The fact that the US is capable of arming every man, woman and child with a dangerous weapon and still have enough left to arm a population equivalent to 12 Singapores! A fact enough to keep the mind racing on the 2nd Amendment and the need for gun control. 

The book is replete with similar easy to remember and implementable examples. The authors urge their readers to adopt a user friendly attitude while explaining facts involving numbers, so that there is no death by data (my own interpretation). Instead of statistically holding forth on the fact that 40% of the adults in the United States do not always wash their hands after a visit to the rest room, just try telling your listeners that 2 out of every 5 people they shake hands with may not have washed their hands in the interval between using the washroom and shaking hands. This will either send your shell shocked listeners making a dash to the nearest pharmacy for a hand sanitizer! 

The authors also argue for the principle of ‘scale’ to be kept in mind while grappling with numbers. Instead of waxing eloquent over the geographical size of Ireland by proudly stating that the country possesses an area of approximately 70,000 square kilometers, just state in a very prolix and matter of fact way that Ireland is half the size of New York State (it’s not so big after all, Ireland that is). If you are intending to bring home the devastating impact of the wildfires that ravaged the Australian continent in 2020, you have two options in which to bring home the terrible facts: 

“The 2020 Australian wildfires destroyed an estimated 46 million acres, or 186,000 square kilometres” 


“The 2020 Australian wildfires destroyed an area: ½ the size of Japan; as large as Syria; 1.5 times larger than the United Kingdom; twice the size of Portugal; the size of Washington State and as large as New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont). 

My favourite part of the book is where the authors exhort the employ of “vividity” to breathe life into numbers. They do this with a unique reference to a hummingbird. Hummingbirds are about 3 grams in weight and the birds consume just about 3-7 calories a day. This makes their metabolism almost 50 times faster than any human being. This fact looks jumbled and little bit hard to absorb. So the Heath and Starr reword it this way: “A hummingbird’s metabolism is so fast that, if it were the size of an average adult male, it would need to consume slightly more than a Coke every waking minute – 67 Cokes an hour, for 16 hours a day”. Just dwell on this astonishing fact for a couple of minutes!

“Making Numbers Count” is a joy to read from both a knowledge outlook as well as from the point of view of developing and honing a technique that would be of utilitarian value in unraveling the myth, mysteries and mystique behind numbers that otherwise may read esoteric and sound daunting. 
Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and is tasked with teaching courses on business strategy and organizations and is a best-selling author of many books, most of which are co-written with his brother Dan. Karla Starr is the recipient of a Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists and is a contributor for the O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian and the LA Times. Both these formidable personalities bring to bear their entire gamut of experience and dish out a veritable treat in the form of this book. 

Making Numbers Count – Mathematics made memorable! 

(Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath & Karla Starr is published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster and would be available from the 11th of January 2022)
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!!
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