This blogpost is a brief summary of the book titled, “Making Numbers Count”, written by Chip Heath and Karla Starr.

Translate Everything

The chapter suggests a test for handling numbers correctly

Go through your letter, document or powerpoint deck. Circle each number and then look above and below by one paragraph or bullet point and find phrase where you translate the number. For example

  • To put that in context
  • To put that in perspective
  • What that means is
  • Think of it this way
  • That means
  • By Comparison

If you see phrases like these, then the number is likely helping you make your point. If you don’t, you’ve left it in a foreign language and neglected to translate.

The chapter also sites the work of two research scientists from MSFT who observe that by providing context to bing results, people understood and remembered the numerical search results

Chapter Takeaways

  • Whenever you see a number worth recalling or worth paying attention to, translate it.

Avoid Numbers

This chapter’s message is that avoiding numbers completely might suit in some situations. If you are able to take a number and translate in to something that does not use any numbers at all, but communicates a concrete, vivid, meaningful message - then you have hit a home run.

Chapter Takeaways

  • Translating the drinkable water in the world via gallon jug filled with water with four ice cubes floating analogy
  • Translating Gender bias in CEOs to something visceral

Try Focusing on 1 at a time

The quickest route to having people understand your number is to start with something simple, a well-understood part of the overall scene: 1 employee, 1 citizen or student, 1 business, marriage or classroom, etc.

Focusing on 1 means taking an average and reducing a big number to something smaller. Focusing on 1 also means focusing on a single, representative example.

Favor User-Friendly Numbers

The chapter mentions two rules to make numbers user friendly

  • Simpler is better - Round with enthusiasm
  • Concrete is better - Use whole numbers to describe whole objects, not decimals, fractions or percentages
  • Follow the rules but defer to expertise.

Find Your Fathom

If you want to help people understand quickly, define your new concept in terms of something your audience already knows. Cultures have used this formula for millennia to develop measurements. One survey of 84 cultures from ancient Romans to the Maori, found that most cultures understood units of measurement through the human body, an omnipresent measuring stick. The length of outstretched arms, fingertip to fingertip, developed as a measurement in half of the cultures. In English, we call this a fathom. One in every four cultures developed a measurement defined as the length of forearm.

MacGyver principle

Look around you. See what you can build using found objects in the environment. Consider what’s universally known to your people: local references, objects used in your field, items in the news.

Chapter Takeaways

  • Round the numbers and think of simple multipliers
    • Turkey is over twice the size of California - 783k square kilometer.
    • Singapore is around 750 square km - Turkey is 1000 times size of Singapore
    • Of the above two, the California analogy might be appropriate as we are using simple multiplier
  • A great fathom gets your audience asking questions. It starts productive conversations about numbers

Convert Abstract Numbers into Concrete Objects

The chapter urges the reader to make a translation between abstract number and concrete objects by citing several examples such as

  • Admiral Grace Hopper holding up a bundle of wire to explain “microsecond” and “nanosecond”
  • Have a mental model for various sizes
    • 1 cm : pea
    • 2 cm : peanut
    • 3 cm: grape
    • 4 cm: walnut
    • 5 cm: lime
    • 6 cm: egg
    • 7 cm: peach
    • 10 cm: grapefruit
  • Concreteness is the first step to making your figures feel real
  • Loved this analogy of using an apartment building with 10 floors and 10 units on each floor. This can be then used to show relative wealth distribution, relative ANYTHING distribution. Most likely the image will stick with me for a long time.
  • Solar system shrink to a size of a quarter. Use this and a football field to relate distance to the nearest solar system - 4.25 light years
  • If earth population was shrunk to a village of 100 - thought experiment

Chapter Takeaways

For any number, think of making the number vivid. After reading this chapter, I could apply the principle to plastic waste flowing in to the oceans

If you think of a single cup to mean 1 million tons of plastic, then the world produces 365 cups a year, a cup a day, resulting in 365 million tons of plastic produced each year. Out of this, about two months worth of cups are mismanaged. One cup out of all the cups (1 million ton) finds way to oceans.

In someways, translating with a visual image about the number seems to work for me. In the last 2 years or so, I have collected close to 1000 facts about various things and have intuitively followed some of the principles mentioned in the chapter. But this book makes some of those subconscious rules explicit thus making it easier and quicker to apply to new situations.

Recast your number in different dimensions

The chapter urges the reader to convert a number in to a completely different quantity to understand it better. Even as simple as multiplication by 300, it makes sense to think of it in different dimensions and get a more visceral understanding. What are the dimensions that one can translate to ?

  • Time
  • Distance
  • Volume
  • Mass
  • Count
  • Size in a 3D sense
  • Temperature

Chapter Takeaways

  • A million seconds is 12 days
  • A billion seconds is 32 years
  • Measure of probability based on number of words in Harry Potters books in a library
  • Trade time for money
  • Express probability in terms of things you can count
  • Convert abstract numbers into Count of objects
  • Convert calories to well understood actions
  • Convert status to a vertical everyone can understand

Human Scale

This chapter talks about several examples highlight the importance of having the right set of reference points so that a number makes sense for us. Thinking about mountain ranges, it is better to have a translation that is closer to our experience than some weird thought experiment such as stacking cards until the moon etc.

For a good human-scale comparison, make use of the clarity of common everyday items. Use things that are concrete and familiar.

I loved the translation relating to the fresh water available for humans on earth. The fact that it is 0.025% of the entire water available on earth can be translated to an equivalent situation of having 20 drops of safe drinking water from a gallon of water in a jug. The fact that 20 drops is 1ml is something that I had never paid attention to until now. It is a fascinating way to shrink big numbers and come up with situations that can be easily understood.

As we have seen people use measurements like Olympic size pool, elephants and jumbo jets because of a bias we call big-ism - the instinct to go for large, seemingly impressive comparisons. Big-ism wows our senses, but it doesn’t cultivate understanding.

Big-ism leads us to unfamiliar experiences. We have never filled an Olympic size pool, and we have hopefully never drunk from a bathtub. We can’t match these things to our memories.

Translating the distances mentioned in to something that is within our realm of experience such as two familiar points in the city you live is a far better way to understand the magnitude of the number. Massive difference in speeds can be translated in to time by translating in to human scale - use the fact that a million seconds is about 12 days. Now whenever you see any comparison between two quantities where one is million times more than the other, use the example of 10days to one second or 100 days to 10 seconds. Fascinating! Never thought about converting the scales to days.

Instead of looking at pennies and dollars, we can bring this into human scale by comparing situations where wealth really comes into play. The difference between having enough to pay for an ER visit and not having it is huge; so is the difference between having enough to retire, and just enough to survive the next few months

Whether we’re shrinking down mountains or adding up moments, human scale helps us understand things more fully by bringing us into a realm of experience where we’re hyper-trained to notice things. It’s obvious when something ridiculously huge or tiny is outside of human scale, but there are many things just on the boundaries of our experience that are still outside our full understanding.

Chapter Takeaways

  • Using 1 million seconds is equivalent to 12 days for translation
  • Using 20 drops is 1ml and a gallon is about 3785 ml - 0.025%
    • Relating drops to bps charged by a fund
  • Converting hours/day of an activity to days saved or spent in a year

Florence Nightingale Avoids Dry Statistics

This chapter talks about 34-year-old administrator named Florence Nightingale, who did great work in the army to save lives. Post her army stint, she came back to UK and converted all her statistical knowledge in to a narrative so as to influence policy decisions. Some of the principles that the authors have crystallized it in to the following principles:

  • Measure in small, equal baskets
  • Use a “comparative” that is especially vivid by virtue of a proximal location
  • make numbers concrete and vivid.

We are no more likely to know what to feel about a number than we are know what to think about a numbers. We used fathoms to understand how to think about abstract numbers

Comparatives, Superlatives and Category Jumpers

The chapter gives examples of each of the Comparatives, Superlatives and Category Jumpers

  • Comparatives to transfer emotion to a seemingly mundane number
  • Superlatives in situations where you motivate your audience where the numbers show you are best by a long shot and yet the crowd sees you as a perhaps a bit better
  • Category Jumpers - Goal is to find the largest category that your number can dominate, then let it
    • Livestocks responsible to greenhouse emissions - compare it with a country emissions

Emotional Amplitude

This chapter takes the approach of combining comparatives, superlatives, category jumpers and any other analogies so that the translation becomes more powerful

Make it Personal

The message in this chapter is pretty obvious

Things we experience lodge in our memories more deeply and more easily than things we are told. Moreover, they become stories, things we can remember and repeat.

Bring Your Number into the room with a demonstration

This chapter has very interesting examples where you can act out the numbers, by seeing and touching their concrete manifestations.


The following are some of the takeaways from the rest of chapters in the book

  • To convey a large number while still inspiring awe at its size, consider converting to an unfolding process
  • Express your number as the cumulative outcome of common actions
  • Travel estimates built on everyday processes are useful because everyone can imagine the process and get a sense of distance without having to calculate and convert
  • Group the steps of your process so that you can feel the weight
  • Offer an encore
  • Make people pay attention by crystallizing a pattern, then breaking it
  • When we are trying to orient people to an unfamiliar statistic, we want to use the same strategy - giving them a few important landmarks to understand the context without requiring them to be an expert
  • Humans are very good at understanding time instinctively - provided the scale is small enough
  • Whatever the system, a scale model makes all the complex dynamics more approachable and lets us bring the numbers into one place where they all make sense

The authors sign off the book with the following advice:

We believe the world becomes a better place when we use numbers more often and more wisely. Counter to conventional practice, that probably won’t involve squeezing more statistics on a page. In fact, it will often mean using fewer digits but with more impact. 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.


Stumbled on to this book in a book store while waiting to pick up my daughter from her play area. Flipped through the book and found some analogies useful. Subsequently bought this book and devoured it in a few days. There are so many hacks mentioned in this book that it is worth going through this book from time to time. Found a ton of stuff useful in the book. One can immediately start applying the principles mentioned in this book in many areas of work. Thoroughly enjoyed the book. One thing is for sure - this book will make you look at every day numbers from a different perspective.