Which of the following warnings would send you running for the hills?
- “The California Department of Water Resources says flows into lake Oroville are just under 45,000 cubic feet per second. Outflows remain high at nearly 100,000 cubic feet per second. If the top 30 feet of the emergency spillway is compromised, it could send a pressure wave down the system and into the Feather River.”
- “We’re looking at a 30-foot wall of water that would be coming out of the lake.”
I don’t know about you, but after hearing the second warning and if I lived in the flood zone, I’d be out the door faster than you can read this article.
The first warning was issued by state officials on February 12 to evacuate nearly 200,000 people in cities and counties downstream from Northern California’s Oroville Dam. The second warning also came from a leader in his official capacity, but his message was meant to get people out—fast. CalFire incident commander Kevin Lawson made the remark in a press conference intended to underscore the severity of the crisis. It worked. The media repeated the statement and it made headlines around the world.
Lawson used an effective communication method to deliver statistics, numbers and data. It’s a tactic I’ve covered in previous columns and videos, but there are new examples every day. The method is simple:
Put data into context that’s relevant to the lives of your audience.
Once you do, the data will be nearly impossible to ignore in presentations, pitches, writing, or any conversation in which data is used to sway minds.
Journalists are often skilled at using this technique. For example, The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, recently wrote an essay in which he made an argument to save the National Endowment for the Arts from budget cuts. Kristof writes:
“Civilization is built not just on microchips, but also on arts, ideas and the humanities. And the arts are a bargain: The N.E.A. budget is $148 million a year, or less than 0.004 percent of the federal budget. The per-capita cost for Americans is roughly the cost of a postage stamp.”
In one paragraph Kristof uses two rhetorical devices. First, he uses pathos (emotion) to appeal to our higher aspirations—the arts helped to build our civilization. Second, he turned to logos (logic, data) and puts the actual numbers into context. The NEA budget is simply a number—whether it’s large or small depends on context. Kristof breaks it down in two sentences: the percent of the federal budget, followed by context that’s relatable to everyone — the price of a postage stamp.
Here’s one of my favorite examples so far this year. In January an article went viral about tacos sold at Jack in the Box. The Wall Street Journal article stated that the chain’s customers eat 554 million tacos a year. Many customers quoted in the article said they’ve eaten better tacos, but they found the ones from Jack in the Box to be addicting. The number — 554 million — wasn’t the catalyst that triggered the article’s popularity. After all, a fast-food chain sells millions of products a year. But the first sentence put the number in perspective: “More than 1,000 times a minute, someone bites into what has been described as a wet envelope of cat food — and keeps eating.”
It’s a provocative sentence that begs an answer. I remember seeing the article and had to keep reading. I didn’t necessarily recall “554 million,” but I remembered “1,000 times a minute.” Now that’s a lot of tacos. The article was picked up or summarized by hundreds of thousands of sites and blogs and reposted on tens of millions of Facebook profiles.
While the headline of the original article included the number 554 million, The Wall Street Journal changed the headline in its Facebook post to: Jack in the Box sells 1,000 tacos per minute. Fans call them “vile and amazing.” The post went viral and elicited more than 1,300 comments. One reader called it “The best headline of 2017 right out of the gate.”
If you read blogs, newspapers and social media posts, as I suspect you do, then you face data overload each and every day. The numbers are simply too big, too frequent and too overwhelming. But if you have important data or statistics to share, you’ll want to make sure your numbers stand out.