Though your next report will be structured around numbers, it’s the words around them that give your audience the ability to understand the figures at hand. This point was best made by that great business philosopher George Carlin, (in his role as sportscaster Biff Burns):
“And now the basketball scores: 110-102,125-113, 131-127, and in an overtime duel, 95-94. Boy, that was a squeaker! Oh, and here’s a partial score: Pittsburgh, 37.”
Unfortunately, all too often the “numbers guys” don’t appreciate the importance of the words. When presenting numbers, you have to choose the right words to include in your presentations. Here’s what needs to be true about those right words:
- They must be as precise and accurate as possible. The level of precision you employ with your words is completely your choice, just as you can choose how many digits you want to present in your numbers.
- You often face tradeoffs between adding accuracy to your words and making your reports clean enough that your audience can quickly grasp what’s important.
- How you organize the words on the page–and of course the numbers corresponding to those words–can have a big impact on the readability of your reports. In other words, sometimes you need to treat words like numbers.
Your words will add either clarity or confusion. Whether your audience is clear or confused depends on whether they agree on the meanings of words and phrases, some of which have specific meanings to business contexts. And some have specific meanings, but only within particular organizations, professions, or industries. Here are some examples of word choices you may face:
Choosing the right words can mean the difference between reports that readers grasp instantly, and those that take an annoyingly long time to understand–if they are understood at all.
You want the reader to be able to glance quickly at the row and column captions to understand the report’s organization and then move on to the numbers. Precision is important, but not if you’re using so many words as to break the flow of reading. Also, if you have to increase column widths or row heights to accommodate the longer captions, you may affect the visual organization of your report.
Through careful use of shortcuts like acronyms and abbreviations, you might preserve both clarity and appearance. However, shortcuts can be used for both good and evil. At their most effective, they enable you to be verbally precise without harming your layout. Still, poorly chosen acronyms and abbreviations add nothing to your reports understandability, and ill-suited shorthand can easily become annoyingly opaque. For example, a term like EBITDA is meaningful to some, and meaningless, condescending jargon to others. (It means earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, by the way.)
When presenting numbers, the way you order your rows should seem natural your readers, so you want to choose an ordering of words or phrases that makes your reports easy-to-read. People naturally sort and order numbers, but they also naturally sort and order words and concepts. Here are some examples:
- When asked to name their children, parents of two or more children will almost always list them in descending order of age.
- When asked to list their significant assets, people will typically list them in descending order of value, even if they weren’t asked to state the values.
- When asked to list all 50 U.S. states, most people visualize a map of the U.S., and start in one corner and work their way across the map to the opposite corner. Very few people can name all 50 states alphabetically.
To understand why it’s important to order your captions properly, let’s take a look at three versions of the same report, listing major donors to a charity. The question here is: Which of these three versions is the correct one to present?
There is no right answer to my question. Version A would be the best choice if the purpose was to recognize the largest donors, or to identify the best prospects to target in an upcoming fundraising round. Version B would be the best choice if the purpose was to provide a complete list of all significant donors. And even Version C might be a good choice, if the main purpose was to report on how the fundraising had progressed (assuming the list order is the order in which donations came in).
The numbers are the centerpiece of your reports. Your words may only help your readers figure out the figures, but they must be crisp, precise, and free of unnecessary flourishes. You spend much more time collecting, organizing, and laying out the numbers than you spend fine-tuning the words around the edges of the page, but the precision and presentation of both the words and the numbers are equally essential to effective reports. Get the words right, and your audience will remember the numbers.
Randall Bolten is a long-time Silicon Valley chief financial officer and the author of Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You. This article is based on Chapter 3, “Words Matter.” Learn more at the book’s website.
[Image: Flickr user Phil Gradwell]