A weekly essay on better writing. With jokes. VIEW ONLINE | FORWARD
Mike Long | Writer, Speechwriter, and Speaker Logo
Get Mike's tips in your inbox. Subscribe today!
Share these tips!

Michael Long is a speaker, writer, and educator.

To discuss hiring Mike for your project, email him.


Share these tips!

You Can't Spell "Numbers" Without "Numb"

No good with numbers? Here's an easy fix for a common problem.

The cold precision of numbers is, to most readers, just that: cold. Most people aren't good with numbers. Some even brag about it. ("Figure a 20 percent tip? That's what the calculator on the phone is for!")
As writers, we don't have the luxury of ignoring arithmetic because our work inevitably includes numbers.

The most common number-driven problem for writers? Showing people what a number means in real-world terms. For instance, the United States federal budget is about $5 trillion. That sounds like a big number, but how big? The average reader has no idea.

And, it turns out, neither does the average writer.

Do you know how many thousands of dollars are in a million dollars? How many millions are in a billion? How many billions in a trillion? I ask this of nearly every audience of communicators I address. Only about two in 10 say they know how many millions in a billion -- and only half who say they know call out the right answer. (There are 1000 millions in a billion, by the way.) 

Since so few of us are good with numbers, the most common way of putting them in speeches and written work is to toss them out there in the hope that the audience knows no more than the writer. The belief is that if the speaker or author makes it seem like the number is something to worry about (or something to dismiss), the audience will, too.

We can do better than that.

And it's pretty easy.
What’s the fix? Put numbers in human terms.

Here's an example. I'll explain the how-to at the end.

Put numbers in human terms.

A little long division produces this nugget:  $5 trillion in spending amounts to about $14 billion a day, every day.
That’s a little easier to swallow, but few people really know how much a billion is, either, so let's dig deeper.

$14 billion a day is about $500 million an hour, which is about $8 million per minute.

And that's about $133,000 per second.
We've struck gold! $5 trillion comes down to $133,000 in spending every second. That’s a number most people can relate to.
If I tell you the government spends $5 trillion a year, well, you’re impressed (or worried) in a vague sort of way. But if I tell you that the government spends $133,000 every second... of every hour… of every day… of every year – now I have your attention.
And with a little Googling of some other numbers, the real-world comparisons start writing themselves:
In one second, the federal government spends more than what two typical American families earn in an entire year.
Every two seconds, the federal government spends enough money to buy the average house in America – that’s your 30-year mortgage paid off in less time than it takes to breathe in, nevermind breathing out.
In the time it takes you to read this sentence out loud, the federal government has spent enough money to buy about half the homes on your block.

In the next 10 months, the federal government will have spent enough money to buy Apple. Twice.

Add one more month of spending and it could buy WalMart, too. Bonus!

Get the idea?

Reducing numbers into familiar terms and familiar comparisons elicits something far more valuable than the typical “gee whiz” you’ve been settling for: it creates real and effortless understanding.
And how do you do the math? Just enter the digits into your calculator, ask Siri, or type the words into Google:  5 trillion divided by 365 – that gives you dollars per day. Divide that by 24 to get dollars per hour. Divide that by 60 to get dollars per minute. See?

Learn to be a better writer and a better speaker.
Join Mike Long's The Magic Show.

Don't settle for scaring people with big numbers. 

Do some simple arithmetic -- long division, to be specific. Put in effort on behalf of your reader.

As a writer, your job is to help people understand things. The first step? Understand it yourself. And it turns out it's not as hard as you might have thought.

Mike's Calendar
Topic Organization Date Location
Creative Writing Georgetown University Sep 23 - Oct 28 (weekly) Online 
Register by clicking here.
Speechwriting: The Method & The Art Professional Speechwriters Association Sep 29 -
Oct 2
Register by clicking here.
PR Writing Series Trade Association October 1 Washington, DC
PR Writing Series Trade Association October 8 Washington, DC
PR Writing Series Trade Association October 14 Washington, DC
Emcee for Marketing Convention Private Nov 4 Washington, DC
European Festival of Political Rhetoric European Speechwriters Network Nov 6-27 Online
Registration TK

Click here to share this newsletter.

Hire me to teach, speak, or write. I'm at Mike@MikeLongOnline.com.

© 2020 Mike Long. All rights reserved.
Burke, VA  22015
You're getting this email because you opted in online. If you don't want to get it anymore, just click on the unsubscribe link and you're outa here!