Imagine that the federal government announces a second-stage bailout in the amount of 703,000 hectoshekels. (We've gone metric!) You're probably not sure how to feel about this. (Though if you're already incensed, you should probably cut down on the Fox News.)
To assess the bailout, you'd ask: How much money is that, exactly? Is it too much or not enough? (Also, in this crazy metric world, how many centiliters do I weigh? And do I look skinnier?)
For all practical purposes, an $800 billion stimulus package is as opaque as a 703,000-hectoshekel package; we have no real grasp of what it means. Big numbers fuzz our brains, and that is just as true in business as it is in public policy. Speaking in "millions" and "billions" is like your second year of Spanish: You've memorized the vocabulary, but it's hard to think in the language. The challenge of communicating the significance of numbers -- and acting on them -- is to find ways to bring them closer to people's day-to-day experience.
Take the $800 billion stimulus package. Some commentators have tried various ways to put the figure in perspective -- if you laid those bills end to end, how many times would they circle the earth? (If there's one thing people have a keen intuition about, it's the earth's circumference, right?) How can you relate to this monstrous figure in the daily-life zone?
Well, there are roughly 112 million households in the United States, with a median household income of about $50,000. So an $800 billion stimulus works out to be the rough equivalent of seven weeks' income for an American household. Is that worth it? By way of comparison, we already work three or four months a year just to pay our federal, state, and local taxes.
So maybe this seems like a no-brainer to you: seven weeks' worth of work to stave off a potential depression. Or maybe you're appalled. Regard-less, we can finally have a real argument, because we have a better idea of what we're arguing about.
Putting a number in a day-to-day context is critical. For instance, years ago, Cisco Systems was contemplating whether to install a wireless network for its employees (a "duh" decision today but not at the time). The company had calculated that it would cost roughly $500 per year, per employee to maintain the network. Was that worth it? Hard to say since we don't have much intuition about $500 yearly expenses.
One employee brought the number into daily life, computing that given what Cisco paid its average employee, if the wireless network could save that worker one to two minutes per day, it would be a good investment. Suddenly, our intuition is activated. Can we imagine a situation where the network might save someone two minutes? Almost certainly yes. (Whereas if the network had required 52 minutes of daily savings to pay off, that would have been a hard sell.)
Building intuition about numbers is different from shocking people with numbers. We've all heard stats like this one (which is real): 27 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the United States -- enough to stretch all the way to the moon and back seven times. What to say about this? For starters, it would be a funny joke to play on the astronauts.
But notice that the astronomical analogy blocks any useful intuition. Would we feel better, for instance, if the diapers only stretched to the moon and back once? That would be just as gross, yet it would mean that six out of every seven families had given up disposables.
It's possible to create intuition without losing shock value. In the film Super Size Me, documentarian Morgan Spurlock mentions a media campaign that encourages kids to eat five fruits and vegetables per day. Its ad budget is $2 million. Meanwhile, McDonald's annual ad budget for the United States is around $750 million. That's a ratio of 375 to 1. That may help explain why your daughter is more likely to beg for a Happy Meal than a fruit salad.
Spurlock could have gone one step further. His ratio is good -- better than millions and billions -- but we still haven't pulled it inside the frame of daily life. So suppose your 5-year-old daughter watches three hours of car-toons every Saturday morning and sees two McDonald's commercials per hour. Every Saturday, then, Ronald McDonald engages her six times.
How long will it be before your daughter sees a fruits-and-veggies com-mercial? She'd wait about 14 months to see the first one, and she'd have a driver's license before she saw 10 of them (the same number of McDonald's ads she'd see in two Saturdays).
A good statistic is one that aids a decision or shapes an opinion. For a stat to do either of those, it must be dragged within the everyday. That's your job -- to do the dragging. In our world of billions and trillions, that can be a lot of manual labor. But it's worth it: A number people can grasp is a number that can make a difference.