"More than 66,000 children younger than 3 go to the emergency room annually for accidents involving nursery products," USA Today reported in March 2017. That's a lot of children, for certain, but to make that number more real and understandable, the article adds, "That's about one every eight minutes."
Listeners and readers often find large numbers hard to digest. For many people, the higher a number climbs, the more abstract it becomes. Try 120 million cubic yards of sand. Just how much sand is that? But if you're told that 120 million cubic yards of sand "could fill a typical dump truck 12 million times, or MetLife Stadium 60 times," the number gains visual reality. It becomes more concrete.
Statistics often do not speak for themselves. An audience will engage and pay attention, comprehend your message, and realize a statistic's significance more fully when you make statistics relatable. That relatability can be achieved through expressing a statistic in alternative, concrete terms. Just as analogies and metaphors succeed by comparing something unfamiliar to something familiar, making statistics relatable can work by translating the abstraction of numbers into something commonly known or experienced.
Presenting a statistic through the perspective of time, for instance, is one way to make it relatable. We know time—seconds, days, years, decades. Attaching a statistic to a span of time places it into a framework with which we are familiar, making it more fathomable and thus more readily understood. Its significance and impact are thrown into stark relief.
Highlighting the expected doubling of Alzheimer's disease to about 16 million cases by 2050, the Alzheimer's Association says that "Every 66 seconds someone in the USA develops Alzheimer's. By mid-century, someone in the United States will develop the disease every 33 seconds." Such an illustration transforms the statistic into smaller bites, bites we can digest, helping us make sense of an unwieldy and amorphous number.
Linking a number to an object can also help an audience visualize and understand. For example, one televised commercial asserts that Americans discard 17 billion toilet paper tubes every year but makes that number relatable by saying that it's enough to fill the Empire State Building twice.
Or suppose you could stack the USA's current national debt of $19, 846, 342, 893, 093 dollar bill upon dollar bill. That stack would reach 1, 346, 895 miles into the sky—a distance that is 5.6 times that of the moon from the earth. Although both images conjure a sight we will never see, we can imagine a stack of dollar bills disappearing into the atmosphere or reaching the moon.
Another way to improve the relatability of a statistic is to strengthen its context by comparing it to one or more other statistics. Ruth Drew, Director of Family and Information Services for the Alzheimer's Association notes that "while US deaths from Alzheimer's have doubled in the last 15 years, an increase of 89%, deaths from other major diseases have been declining." She enumerates these death rates, including "deaths from heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans," which declined by 14 percent.
A statistic can also be contextualized by telling the story of one or more people (or places) included in that statistic. After stating that "more than 36 million adults in America . . . struggle with basic reading, writing, and math skills," ProLiteracy profiles several adult learners, detailing their journey from illiteracy to literacy. Besides putting faces to some of that 36 million, the profiles provide a variety of personal histories and circumstances that characterize illiteracy and the struggle to conquer it.
We all better understand that to which we can relate. Give your audience that advantage.