The Numbers Racket

Quantitative information is highly useful in business writing. Numbers are important for setting goals, measuring performance and convincing an audience, and accounting is fundamental to all business.

Marketers know that it's effective to use statistics like "8 out of 10 dentists recommend," and one can often catch the reader's attention by starting an article or appeal with an interesting or surprising statistic. One could say, for example: "In the United States, more than 20 million miles of underground utility lines make our everyday activities possible."

We have to be careful, however, to make sure that we use numbers effectively, and I suspect most of us have come across pieces of business writing where the numbers were totally confusing. I know I have.

The Numbers Racket
Say What's Necessary 
One temptation is to plug in a statistic just because it's available, or worse, to pack in so many statistics that the reader gets lost trying to keep them straight and figure out which are meaningful.

"Sometimes," according to PR consultant Kathe Stanton, "we suspect, a writer can't bear to part with statistics any more than a hoarder can give up his gatherings."
On other occasions, authors can simply be redundant. I recently read an article that said, "Fifty-two percent of the residents are female and 48 percent are male." Do I need the second half of that sentence, especially since the article focused on the female residents?

Analyze Your Audience
Perhaps some people found the extra information helpful. Different audiences have different needs, and you should ask yourself: What does this statistic mean to my readers? Why should they care about it? And how does it support the argument I'm trying to make?

If you're writing for, say, bankers or engineers, you may need to use more numbers than for the general reader. After all, if they're trying to analyze loan quality, or the effects of mercury on fish populations, mere qualitative information isn't going to do the trick. But even in these cases, you still have to use the right statistics to achieve your purpose.

One source of confusion can be taking percentages of percentages. "Sixty percent of respondents agreed with the Speaker's statement, but only 50 percent of that group thought the government should act on it, and only ten percent favored immediate action." Confused yet?

Some Readers May Not Be Good with Numbers
Analyzing your audience is particularly important because not everyone is good at arithmetic.

I once interviewed people who had successfully quit smoking, and the first question I always asked was, "How long did you smoke before you quit?" One woman responded by saying, "You're going to have to help me with that. I started when I was 15 and now I'm 22." I suggested that she had smoked for about seven years. Her response: "That sounds about right."

Use Up-to-Date Numbers
Stanton points out that "organizations have a way of re-quoting a number that might not be current or accurate. I'd like a dollar for every time a client has said to me, on reading a draft of a news release, 'You know, we use that number all the time, but now that I look at it...maybe we'd better check.'"

Charts and Graphs Can Help
If you have detailed quantitative information, like the test scores of students in school districts across the state, a chart will often help you make it more understandable.

Ditto for graphs. If you want to compare percentages, you can put the information in a pie chart. If you want to show differences or variations, you can use a bar chart. If you want to show progression over time, you can use a line chart. You have many options.

But remember your purpose, and leave out anything that doesn't get you there. In other words, avoid the temptation to use more graphs or charts than you need. I'm not impressed by how hard you worked but by how well you can solve my problem.
Even if your graphs and charts are exactly the right ones, you still have to explain them briefly in the text. They aren't a substitute for the text. 

All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at